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One of the definitions of sanity is
the ability to tell real from unreal.
Soon we'll need a new definition.
                           Alvin Toffler

Reality vs. Actuality

On this page:
What We Mean By These Terms | Your Reality vs. Self-Defense | Armageddon vs. Social Violence | What This Means To Self-Defense

Making a distinction between reality and actuality annoys some people. One such individual accused us of 'sophism' for making the distinction(1). Overall he felt we were splitting hairs, changing definitions and, basically, muddying the waters in order to get something.

We look at the distinction as not only an invaluable tool to assist you in communication, negotiate, compromise and interpersonal relationships, but it's also a significant factor in whether or not someone's brains get blown into a fine pink mist.

Unfortunately, we're not making this up.

Nor are we 'making up' the fact that in a potentially violent situation something as small as narrowing your eyes at the wrong time can cause a situation to explode. We're talking a 'flashing lights, paperwork and the need for a Rug Doctor' explosion. And it could be you messing up the carpet.

It's been our experience that those 'narrowed eyes' are a usually a reaction over what someone is afraid of happening rather than what is actually occurring. And yet, in reacting to what is inside of us, we effect what is outside of us. Unfortunately, this often includes our actions bringing about the very thing we fear.

That is why it's important to recognize the difference between Reality and Actuality. Although this is not a popularly used distinction, hopefully by the time you finish reading this page you'll understand how important it is -- for everyone's safety.

What We Mean By These Terms
A down and dirty definition is this:

Reality is YOUR perceptions and interpretation of what is going on outside of you,
  A sub-clause of this is: Your reality is strongly influenced by what is
   occurring inside your body/mind (e.g. chemically)

Actuality is what appears on the security camera recording.

In short, reality is what is going on inside people's heads. Whereas, actuality is what is happening outside of those heads.

While this may sound like we're trying to make things all kinds of complicated, this is -- at the very least -- a spittin' blood issue. Because what is going on inside will definitely effect what happens outside.

The reason for this is simple:

People react more to what is happening inside than outside.

They think they're reacting to the outside environment. But that statement defines the problem. Thinking or 'emotional processing' (which is commonly mistaken as thinking) is an internal process! As it IS an internal process it is subject to issues like perception, pre-conceived ideals, emotion, adrenalin, intoxication, confusion, processing via the limbic system  and individual mindset.

All of those go into a person's 'reality.' And THAT is what the person is most likely to react to.

Your Reality And Self-Defense
Many people use the term self-defense without knowing what it means anyway. Then they wonder why they go to jail for 'defending themselves'. When the further complications we are about to address arise, it is no small wonder that people are arrested. The reason why they are arrested is because they weren't defending themselves, they were fighting.

With this in mind, let us establish this up front: It doesn't matter what you "think" you were doing, what matters is what you were "actually" doing.

More importantly you have to react to what IS happening, not what you are afraid 'might' happen. A prime example of this (and why a lot of people get arrested 'for defending themselves' - NOT) is kicking someone when he is down. Your monkey brain says "He MIGHT get up, so kick him before he does." However, if you do, you will be charged with aggravated assault(2). The reason for this is you've crossed the line; stomping a downed opponent is NOT self-defense, it's attacking.

Before we go on, we need to mention the importance of imagination. A new theory postulates that imagination is a survival function that humans developed to supersede simplistic instincts. This trait allows humans to adapt to a wide variety of environments. For example, northern cavemen would learn when snow and cold came food was scarce. So even though everything was green and food was plentiful now, winter would return (imagination). Based on this a strategy of gathering food to winter over was developed.

According to Terry Burnham "...our brains, like our bodies, reflect the world of our ancestors. Our lizard brains are pattern-seeking, backwards-looking systems that allowed us to forage for food and repeat successful behaviors. This system helped our ancestors survive and reproduce ... (3)."

In short, when confronted with a situation, we tend to look into our 'memory' to find an answer. It is the combination of memory/pattern and imagination that creates fear. We see a pattern we adjudge 'bad,' imagine the outcome and we fear it coming to pass. When combined with action appropriate to the incoming data you get positive results.

However, three potential problems exist here.

  • First is most of what you think you know about violence comes from movies and past experiences. A combination of Hollywood's 'unstoppable bad guys' and ineffective striking on your part can strongly influence 'what' you believe about the danger you are facing.
  • Second, in most people, your monkey brain looks at threats to your emotional well being and social status as the same thing as a physical threat. Let me repeat that because it is important, often people cannot distinguish between a threat to their emotions and/or pride OR actual physical danger.
  • Third, when imagination takes over, it begins to insert patterns/memories that MAY NOT BE PRESENT in the current situation! Yet, perceptually (i.e. in your 'reality') you can't tell the difference.

To you, those ARE real and 'what is going on.' In your 'reality' that IS an eight foot two, snarling psychotic intent on killing you. Unless you are aware of the difference between reality/actuality, it is to those perceptions/mental images that you will react to.

Now the real problem: Fear and adrenalin will be turbo-charging that process. Or as Marc likes to say "With power tools mistakes happen faster."

Armageddon vs. Social Violence
There is an added complication here. Simply stated people who have no or very limited exposure to physical violence tend to think that any violence directed at them is Armageddon.

Since it's the end of the world ... then by default, whatever they do is self-defense, right?


This is where your imagination, fear and adrenalin and MOST of what is being taught as 'self-defense' is the equivalent of handing a power tool to a child. The consequences are going to bloody and destructive.

Let's start with the simple fact that an overwhelming majority of violence is NOT lethal. And that isn't because the person wasn't good enough to kill, it's because killing was NEVER the intent of the violence.

Humans are biologically wired to manifest violence in certain ways as a tool for social order. (Rory Miller calls it the 'Monkey Dance' in his book Meditations On Violence). The truth is that LONG before a situation turns physically violent these primate social dominance and conflict behaviors have been running the show. Even if a situation escalates into being physical, with these Kinds of Violence there are protocols and goals.

Unfortunately, modern civilized society frowns on this behavior so most people aren't experienced or familiar with these protocols to recognize that it ISN'T Armageddon. So even though it's based in primate behavior, this lack of experience removes a sense of proportion and creates overreaction.

For example: A huge factor in territorial violence is to chase the 'offending monkey' from sight. As long as your monkey brain sees the 'threat' you will continue to attack. Unfortunately, when you are 'chasing the other monkey out of your territory' you are not only oriented on him, but he is constantly in your field of vision. This is why so often someone who slashed someone 27 times with a knife -- 15 of them in the back as the person tried to flee -- will steadfastly insist it was 'self-defense.' His monkey brain DIDN'T care which way the guy was facing. As far as his 'inexperienced' monkey brain was concerned the other guy was still attacking!

We cannot stress enough: That was the person's 'reality.'

Actuality is a whole lot different. While he is convinced what he did was 'self-defense,' the security recording is going to show him repeatedly slashing the 'victim' and then him chasing and stabbing the 'victim' in the back. That is the actuality of what happened.

And he's going to go into court over the actuality of his actions -- not his reality of his mind.

What This Means To Self-Defense
It may seem like this section is a meaningless side trip into intellectualism and sophistry, it's not. As well as being germane to the subject at hand, these concepts have two very critical points in regard to both self-defense and the training you undergo for it.

First, is the adrenal stress/reaction that you will have in a live-fire situation. In a dangerous situation your body will react in a way that will greatly impact your "reality."

What you perceive at that time will very seldom be a correct interpretation of what is actually happening. This is especially true in cases where lethal force is being used. Entirely too often (especially with knife self-defense) your adrenalized "reality" will see the very presence of an attacker as a continued threat.

As such you will -- in your reality at least -- "continue to defend yourself" by striking. When, in fact, the person has stopped attacking and is currently trying to turn and flee. But your monkey brain won't see it that way. As far as it is concerned, if he's still there, he's still attacking.

Unfortunately, by continuing to attack you have legally turned into the aggressor. That is a clear cut example of the trouble that reacting to your 'reality' can get you in. If you want to stay out of prison, you need to react to the actuality of the situation.

You don't kick him because he 'might' get up. You aren't there to win the fight. That's monkey brain social dominance thinking. If you are actually defending yourself you knock him down and run. Get OUT of the situation. If you stay there, you are fighting, no matter what your monkey brain is telling you. And THAT is what the jury is going to see.

The second point one must consider is: How do you train for actuality?

What must be involved in your training so that your reality doesn't hijack you into the legal trouble that we just described? How do you train to still succeed under distorted reality conditions?

Unfortunately, most training regimens that we have seen do not take these issues into consideration. Once you know what to look for, you can immediately tell when these issues have not only not been addressed -- but even considered.

These are small issues that have big consequences. For example, by training the person to turn towards an attacker in the name of "defense" (instead of fleeing), the student is being set up to fall into this 'reality-trap' of continuing to attack after the threat has passed.

If you have been trained to turn towards a potential threat and take a fighting stance -- if you ever do end up in a live fire situation -- this is just one of the many problems that you will face. And this is over and above the problem of a person being unable to perform under the stress of his/her new "reality."

As an instructor, how do you train someone to be able to do this in the first place? It isn't just enough to teach people to do a technique. If they are to be successful, you have to teach them how to do it under stress, under a drastically altered reality

But that is NOTHING in comparison to the importance of teaching them WHEN to execute the move. If you encourage them to believe that any violence directed at them is Armageddon, then you are as much a part of the problem as them. Worse, you are setting your students up for a world of legal trouble.

That's how important this subject is for self-defense and training, but where knowing the difference between reality and actuality is in keeping you from being sold a bill of faulty goods. You can spend a lot of money learning someone's reality. A reality that has little to do with what will work to keep you safe in a violent situation. What makes it difficult to tell the difference between good and faulty information is how convinced someone can be about their reality. Such a person will provide you with faulty information and do it with utter conviction and sincerity -- because it supports their reality.

People who want you to accept their version of reality tend to do so for not so nice reasons. So you better pay attention to people who use the word "reality" a little too often and a little too freely, because the question you need to ask is "Whose reality?"

Return to top


1) The first line out of Wikipedia sums it up:
Sophism can mean two very different things: In the modern definition, a sophism is a confusing or illogical argument used for deceiving someone. In Ancient Greece, the sophists were a group of teachers of philosophy and rhetoric.
He meant it in the modern definition. Return to Text

2) In many states the 'shod human foot' when applied to a downed person is considered a lethal force instrument -- especially when delivered as a downward stomp. Because the downed person cannot roll with or escape the force, such an action is capable of killing or grievously injuring the downed person. Oh yeah, and while you might think you're doing it to keep him from getting up ... it's the same move that thugs use to maim people. Return to Text

3) Terry Burnham Mean Markets And Lizard Brains: How to Profit From the New Science of Irrationality (pg 6) Return to Text

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