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Stay Safe by Being Alert, Not Anxious


I was watching the new CSI Las Vegas when someone asked a retired CSI being hunted down if they were being hypervigilant. His answer was no, that he wasn’t going to live in fear, but he strongly intended to stay alert. This seemed like a vital distinction to both stay safe and not make yourself crazy doing it.

Hypervigilance is when you live in fear 24/7, when you’re constantly—consciously or unconsciously—scanning the horizon for new threats even when you’re safe and when you’re unable to turn off the threat sensor in your brain. As it turns out, hypervigilance doesn’t work very well because it produces too many false positives. For example, my client George always expects people to reject or abandon him because he grew up in foster homes. You can’t blame George for wanting to brace himself against suffering and avoid it, but he’s so on guard that he misinterprets data and sees rejection of his fragile self when there isn’t any. In fact, most people enjoy and like to be with him.

At the other end of the spectrum are people with high expectations of everyone. Because they’re nice and trustworthy, they assume others are too, so they get taken advantage of and feel like victims. For instance, my client Sophia wears very provocative clothing to bars and then complains when men come on to her. We talk about how her insistence that she has an absolute right to wear revealing clothes and resentment that it doing so has consequences cancels out the wisdom of her experience of repeatedly getting hit on and even raped once.

So, if you’re not hypervigilant and don’t want to walk around in la-la land thinking all will be well, what are you left with? I’d say, as the TV character I mentioned did, with alertness. The Oxford Language Dictionary defines the adjective alert as “quick to notice any unusual and potentially dangerous or difficult circumstances.” The key words here are “quick,” “notice,” “potential danger,” and “difficult circumstances.”

When you’re alert, you’re not looking for trouble, but you also recognize it as soon as you spot or feel it. You take things as they come and are firmly grounded in reality. You don’t pretend you don’t see something, ignore the obvious, or rationalize that everything’s okay when it’s not because you wish things to be different. You’re curious about people and make judgments about how they are, not how they should be or how you’d like them to be. This allows you to avoid being hypervigilant while possessing the tool of alertness at the ready to help you determine friend from foe and safety from danger.






Replace Judgments with Emotions
Book Review of the Expectation Effect

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