Denial and a Reason To Live – Key Concepts in Personal Safety

This was written by one of our DP Community members Tom Pecora, who is a security professional with more than 30 years’ experience protecting people. A retired former CIA Senior Security Officer, he spent 24 years protecting and training Agency personnel and he managed large complex security programs in multiple war zones. He specialized in crisis management, personnel and physical security, and counterterrorism operations. Today he is the Director of Pecora Consulting Services and a senior consultant for the Arcuri Group where he is a curriculum specialist and provides situational awareness training.


When it comes to our personal safety and that of our families, we have to ensure that we are living in reality and not pretending that our world is totally safe. This pretending, which is a form of denial, is an insidious mental condition that we humans readily embrace to make ourselves feel more comfortable. Deep down we want to assure ourselves that “everything will turn out alright”! But life is dangerous and bad things do happen to good people (as well as bad)!


I have worked with people in dangerous places doing danger things and some were lucky enough to not come face to face with the ugly side of that world. Some were not so lucky. Some were cognizant of the reality - that they could get hurt or killed - while some wandered about not really accepting this fact because “in their movie” the hero always wins!


When bad things happen, if we are in denial about the nature of the world, our mind will betray us. Our brain will lockup with thoughts like, “I can’t believe this is happening” and/or “this is not really happening”! We may even go into shock and freeze like a rabbit.


When it comes to assessing our personal safety, we must adequately address “reality” and for some of us, we may have to do a personal intervention. We will have to stop and really look at and think about the world we live in and the things we do in it. No matter who you are and where you live – there are dangers (vehicle accidents, inclement weather, crime etc.). So instead of burying our head in the sand, let’s face it head on!


Even if we can conquer our tendencies toward “Denial”, we have to be careful that her evil twin - complacency - does not get us! Complacency is a mini version of denial as it is often a result of our successes leading to overconfidence (and a bit of laziness). Complacency occurs slowly, creeping into our mind and then into our actions. We subconsciously decide we don’t have to work so hard; we have been successful for so long, we can skimp a little bit on our preparation, we can skip that checking our vehicle before that trip, we can assume that the threat level is the same as the last trip.


If we spend a considerable time in dangerous locations or situations, complacency kills! It tries to slide in unannounced, whispering in our ear that “the last 5 trips into the danger zone went well - no need to do all the prep, just skip one of the steps this time - it will be fine”!


Greek and Roman philosophers worked hard on the subjects of denial and complacency going so far as to remind themselves daily that they were going to die, that no one is promised a tomorrow. Some even carried a coin in their pocket engraved with the Latin saying “Memento Mori” – “Remember your Death”!


In Amanda Ripley’s book, “The Unthinkable – Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why”, she explored how some people survived and others did not when they faced several major catastrophes. She specifically mentions the danger of denial and the importance of aggressively pushing through the denial period and getting to action.


In Dr. Viktor Frankl’s book about his time in a Nazi concentration camp, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, we find another unique perspective. Specifically, Dr. Frankl found that it was not always the physically strong who survived, it was those people who were mentally strong and had a “reason to live”! In both books, we see that people who survived these life-threatening events usually had a special kind of mindset, a “survival mindset”!


The survival mindset is the cornerstone for our personal safety strategies and by keeping these two concepts (denial and a reason to live) in mind, we can make the mental changes necessary to begin applying effective strategies to avoid or mitigate danger. This is truly the closest we can come to “controlling our environment” instead of being a victim of it!


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