Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

skierOne day, about a year and a half ago, my wife and I were walking along a street near our home when she grabbed my arm and suddenly exclaimed, “I think that woman is in trouble!”

I followed her gaze to a car stopped at a light and saw to my horror a woman being prevented from exiting the passenger side door by the man who was driving.  He held her hair clumped in his hand.  She was screaming and crying and trying to free herself to no avail.

My wife yelled at me, “Call 9-1-1!” and ran toward the car.  In turn, I yelled at another pedestrian, “Call 9-1-1!” and ran after my wife.  We reached the woman together.  By now the light had turned green and the driver was not only continuing to cling to the woman’s hair but starting to move forward slowly.  I thrust my head inside their car and he exclaimed at me, “She’s crazy!” but then let go of her.  My wife and I rushed the woman off the street and to the sidewalk while the man drove away.  Moments later no fewer than four police cars came roaring into the area, adrenaline pumping as they erupted from their squad cars, ready for what must have been painted as a truly emergent situation by whoever ended up calling them.

It had been a domestic disturbance.  The woman, in tears, reported having mentioned another man to the driver, her boyfriend.  “Then he just started hitting me,” she said in bewilderment, a bruise on her cheek already beginning to swell and discolor.  She related her story to the police while my wife and I spoke with two other drivers who’d stopped their cars to help as well.


I found myself returning to the events of that morning several days later, wondering about the initial reactions of everyone involved.  My wife’s reaction to rush forward to help seemed to have been instinctive.  My initial reaction was to freeze and wonder just what I was seeing.  Only when I saw my wife leaping into potential danger did I leap after her.

When I asked my wife about it, she told me she thinks about such situations constantly and rehearses in her mind exactly what she would want herself to do ahead of time, almost like professional skiers will often run a course mentally before actually skiing it.  For her, leaping to help the woman represented a following of a plan she’d already carried out in her mind countless times before.

There seems to be a real advantage to having thought through and even “pre-programmed” a response before being thrust into situations that require split-second thinking.  That way, you’re much more likely to act in the most effective way (as you’ve presumably considered several responses and chosen the best in a calm moment of reflection) or in a way most consistent with the person you want to be.

If, for example, you don’t ever consider the possibility that something bad could happen to you, you’ll fail to prepare for it adequately, and that failure could literally mean the difference between life and death.  My wife, son, and I recently went on our first cruise.  The first day the crew held a lifeboat drill in which every passenger was required to participate.  As I listened to people joking about the possibility of needing to know what we were being taught, I found myself astounded at the ability we have as human beings to deny.  Certainly the likelihood of the ship sinking was low, but did anyone there really not remember the Titanic?  It’s hubris to imagine bad things only happen to others and foolish not to prepare for them in a reasonable way.  Speed in an emergency is often the key ingredient for survival, and nothing promotes speed like rehearsal, whether physical or mental.

Of course, you can’t rehearse for every disaster.  Just which disasters you do rehearse will depend on just which bad possibilities concern you.  Should city dwellers rehearse for the possibility of a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack?  In the previous two decades this might have seemed foolish.  Perhaps not so much now.  My wife and I actually have a plan for this.


Since the day we encountered that woman, I’ve consciously worked on planning reactions to situations in which I feel ambivalent about how to behave.  For me, this ends up being things like:  I’m asked to do something I don’t really want to do for good reasons but feel compelled to do for bad ones; I’m confronted by a stranger needing help; or I’m asked for money by a homeless person.  I wrote about that last situation in an earlier post, What Compassion Is, and since then have settled on the response I want myself to have, have rehearsed it in my mind, and have found myself successfully carrying it out as a result.

Once the woman my wife and I rescued had calmed down, one of the officers who’d been speaking to her came over and told us she’d refused to press charges.  With a knowing look born of years of experience in handling domestic disturbances, the officer said, “You know how that goes.”  Sadly, having cared for my share of battered women in my medical practice, I did.  I wondered at the time how often she’d been the victim of domestic violence before, if this had been a pattern in her life.  I’m well aware of the complexities that often prevent an abused person from leaving their abuser, but in retrospect now, I wonder if she’d been able to rehearse standing up for herself, or rehearse leaving her boyfriend if he ever became physical with her, if that might have increased the likelihood of her actually doing it.

Next WeekHow I Met And Married My Wife

24 comments to Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

  • Your reflections are most enlightening! Not only do they impart great wisdom for everyday situations, but as you say, they can be read in less than 5 minutes. I love the idea of rehearsing difficult situations which I will pass along to my clients. My only criticism is your use of the phrase “piss-poor” in the title. Why resort to an ugly vulgarity when the English language is rich with descriptive words that would do a far better job in making your case?

    Ruth: I’m glad you found the article interesting. I used the phrase “piss-poor” not because I’m a fan of vulgarity but because a former mentor of mine used it when he taught me the phrase originally, which he named “The 5 P’s.” Granted, some may find the 3rd and 4th “P’s” of the phrase somewhat off-putting, but they certainly make it memorable (though I suppose the “4 P’s” works just as well). 😉


  • Mary Carlisle

    They say we all have a fight-or-flight response in us and everyone is different in the face of danger. I would say Rhea has a fight response; but whatever the case I have noticed how much more prepared I am when I’ve played it out in my mind what I will do.

    Can you share a little bit of what you two would do in the situation of a nuclear attack?

    Mary: You’ve put your finger on it exactly: Rhea has a fight response where others tend to have a flight response (myself included)! The anecdote I used in the post is far from the only situation in which Rhea’s fight response almost got us in trouble.

    What do we plan to do in case of a nuclear attack? Presuming neither of us is killed in the blast, the plan is to travel in the opposite direction of the wind (to do our best to avoid the radiation). We have designated meet-points in four directions. Also, our plan would be to arrive by bicycle (the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear blast would presumably kill all electric-powered machines, including cars and motorcycles, as well as the ability to use cell phones and text messaging). It’s not really much of a plan, but it is something. Our thinking is that when a disaster of monumental proportions strikes (like the earthquake in Haiti) everyone’s first concern is the family members from whom they’re separated. Marking out a plan before disaster strikes—even a far-fetched one—to find your family seems like a good idea.


  • Mary Carlisle

    I’m not really sure if mine is fight or flight. I’ve had both in my life.

    That’s a good plan, and a few things I never thought of; this is when living alone is scary. I think of earthquakes out here and ALWAYS sleep with my cell phone right next to me so even if a building collapses I’ll have access to it. This article has made me think of a few other things to do. Thanks, Alex.

  • In fact, planning is the only way most victims of domestic violence make a successful getaway. Everything must be considered, from escape route to protection after the fact, and everything else that issues from such an upheaval.

    If the planning—both psychological and tactical—is good, there is a reasonable chance for success.

  • Minerva

    I have a strong fight response and often spend time mulling over potential difficult situations. Do you suppose that those who spend time actually thinking about unlikely and scary scenarios simply ratchet up their fight/flight response and add unnecessary stress to their lives? Or, is it that some naturally have a stronger response and feel more stressed thus spend more time thinking about difficult scenarios?

    Minerva: My guess is it varies from person to person. My wife’s natural response is to fight. She enjoys the opportunity to stand up against injustice. She also spends time imagining sad things happening in her life because she argues it prepares her to deal with them—but it also brings out sadness when nothing’s happened yet! To me, this is unnecessary. I think we’re just different.


  • Chris

    Domestic violence is one situation where I think charges should proceed regardless of the victim’s willingness to talk about it. We can fashion a criminal justice system that helps both abuser and victim. A photograph and some eye-witnesses can fill the gap of that’s woman’s denial. And perhaps change the future for both people in that episode.

    Chris: I wholeheartedly agree. That woman likely wasn’t the only victim of that man.


  • Elizabeth

    You & your life partner are opposites of me & mine. I “access” a situation where a person needs immediate help, my husband “reacts.” On the other hand, I will be assertive in highly charged, emotionally conflicted situations; he avoids conflict. After 40+ years, I see it as a check & balance function of the relationship. Also after passing through many potential crises, I have found it true that MOST of the things one worries about…don’t happen. That’s good. Preparing for the worst & hoping for the best would be prudent except that in today’s world our knowledge of “the worst” (nuclear incident, super volcano eruption, bio-terrorism, terror attacks, financial meltdown) feels like (I like the P* word) pissing in the wind. Yet some kind of plan seems realistic & responsible…

  • Alisa Bowman

    I think your wife is a “catastrophic thinker.” I do the same thing—think of calamities and then figure out how I’d react to them. It happens quite naturally. The calamities just pop into my brain. Lately, I’ve been trying not to do this. I’ve been thinking that the catastrophic thinking is filling me with negativity—consistently pulling my mind to dwell on the inhumanity of man, if you will. Because I’ve been trying to train my mind toward more positive and compassionate thoughts through Buddhist meditations, it seemed counter -roductive to continually be thinking about bank robberies and such. Maybe there’s a middle ground. I’m not sure.

    Alisa: You’ve certainly pegged my wife exactly right. She finds it beneficial, but I do agree it tends to aim you toward more negative thinking if you’re not careful.


  • Morag

    Thank you. You’ve given me a plan. I’m going to practice responses to a variety of situations. One is saying “no” gracefully to unexpected requests. Because I have a “helping” job, people often ask me to do extra things I don’t want to do.

    But also, I want to rehearse saying kind things when I have a chance. Often, in the same way that inappropriate requests take me aback, opportunities to validate and comfort people take me by surprise, and I don’t want to miss them any more. So I’m going to practice.

    Morag: I really like the idea of rehearsing saying kind things when the opportunity arises. I’m going to do the same thing.


  • Toni Bernhard

    My husband is like your wife. I’m like you. He’s “fight.” I’m “flight.” His “fight” response once saved our dog’s life. As I stood frozen in place, he kept the dog from sliding down a cliff to certain death.

    I’d definitely benefit from rehearsing how to handle unexpected situations so I’m just not frozen when action would be the wiser choice. One example: we were in Candlestick Park when the quake of 1989 hit; I just was frozen in place; my husband had to grab my arm and pull me toward the exit.

    But reading your post makes me realize that my husband would benefit from rehearsing too. I worry that he’s going to get himself injured or killed one of these days as he rushes to help people (or, as above, animals) in need. Maybe I’d stop worrying about him AND he’d be a lot safer if the two of us discussed the various scenarios that might come up and whether it would be too dangerous for him to do anything other than call 911.

    Thanks for another helpful post, Alex. Now I’ve got to go talk to the hubbie.

  • Julia

    LOL. Yes Alex, but what will you do in a Zombie attack?

    It took a friend of mine over a year to be able to stand up to her abuser. I know that was a lot of rehearsing for her, even to make a small step forward. In a situation like that, adrenaline really clouds the thinking. I think part of the problem domestic violence victims face is that support groups (friends, family, etc…) get tired of waiting for the victim to find courage or develop new responses. People tend to give up on one another too quickly, not realizing that real change can take a tremendous amount of time.

    Thanks again for the wonderful post.


    Julia: Your last statement is especially right on. Interestingly, my wife is far more freaked about by zombies than I am (did you see 28 Days Later?) She wouldn’t even let me leave her alone long enough for me go to the bathroom after we watched it in bed on the last day of our honeymoon.


  • Rob

    As a naturally anxious person, and (as a result of criminal victimization) a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, mentally rehearsing for the Worst Case Scenario is a fact of my life. It is somewhat soothing to think these mental loops make me more prepared for a variety of emergencies. But, one must admit, it is habitual way of thinking that makes for a tense and worried state of mind.

    During sevasana in a recent yoga class, my epiphany was to realize that the truth is that, despite my anxious personality, I DO respond well in a crisis. I remain calm and efficiently do what is needed. I do not need these mental rehearsals (which cause so much anxiety) to respond well. So I can let go of the need to mentally rehearse every eventuality. I only need to trust myself to do what I know I CAN do.

    For me, piss-poor performance is much less of a threat than constant vigilance. That is my journey to find Happiness in This World.

  • Mike

    While your wife’s intentions are admirable, you might want to suggest she contemplate a different response, such as getting a clear description of the car and license plate and calling 911. Talk to some cops you know and you’ll find out that domestic violence situations are charged with tension and it’s not common for the woman being abused to attack the cops along with her abuser! And while your wife didn’t know if this was a domestic violence situation or a kidnapping, consider that a kidnapper might be armed and more than willing to shoot. For that matter, I wouldn’t bet on abusers being unarmed either.

    The wrong response would be to turn away and say “not my problem.” But your wife does better, IMHO, by getting the authorities who are trained and prepared to handle the situation involved rather than attempting a rescue herself.

    Mike: You just articulated the very same thing I did myself after the incident. I wish we were both more persuasive.


  • Mary Carlisle

    I think we all take chances in life and risks. I would have had the same reaction as Rhea even if some think it may be a bit foolish. She reacted quick and went with her intuition I’m sure. If she hadn’t done that and just screamed for someone to call 911 you may have watched the woman be dragged down the street while he was moving the car and fall under the car to her death.

    The woman ended up being a typical abused woman who didn’t want her abuser to go to jail but no one knew that until later. This is going to sound bad but if I was to see the same woman with the same man again in an abusive situation I wouldn’t get involved again.

  • Minerva

    A good personal setting is probably somewhere between hyper-vigilant and laissez faire—if only it were so easy to self adjust!

    This article seems topical—

  • Too bad it wasn’t in Canada. Here the police can just go ahead investigate and charge the offender without the person having to deal with the trauma of making a decision.

    I also did some work with a group called That is exactly what they do. They teach you personal safety skills then you role play and practice the skills till you don’t have to think about what to do. You’ve made it second nature.

  • Chuck

    I can well appreciate your urge to go after your wife both to protect her and also to act to help the victim based on perhaps some conditioning from med school—physicians are trained to do things, they don’t stand around and watch.

    However, did the possibility of your actions subjecting you two to violence and the need to perhaps use violence to apprehend and/or escape from the suspect enter your thinking? I know that the use of violence by Buddhists is a very controversial topic, regardless of the motivation or situation. In the eyes of many, violence is a lose-lose issue with respect to negative karma, or so I’ve been told.

    While I understand the philosophical arguments about letting others work out their karma on their own, I would have a difficult time just standing by and watching someone being obviously terrorized by another. I would (and have in the past) used the minimum amount of force I thought necessary to protect the helpless in such a situation as yours until the police can arrive and sort it out. However the fact is that I am using violence (or threat of it) and force to intervene if that is what it takes. If this action generates negative consequences for me, I must accept that risk as part of being a good citizen.

    I do not have access to the documents nor the skill to search out the Buddha’s teachings on this issue, but the above is what my gut tells me.

    Do you have thoughts on this issue?

    Chuck: There’s a saying in the form of Buddhism I practice, Nichiren Buddhism, that “Buddhism is reason.” Nichiren Buddhism is practiced simultaneously for one’s own happiness and the happiness of others. A Nichiren Buddhist doesn’t sequester himself in a mountaintop cave to meditate and become enlightened but rather thrusts himself into the midst of society to combat the suffering of others. Nichiren Buddhism abhors violence because it means harming another. Yet if you need to harm another to save yourself, for example, or to save someone else, violence may in fact be an act of compassion. As a Nichiren Buddhist I wouldn’t ever relish harming someone else, but if it were necessary to protect someone else, would consider it the “reasonable” thing to do. As I wrote in What Compassion Is and Become A Force For Good, sorting out compassionate, right action is frequently difficult in the real world and often leads to counterintuitive conclusions. Buddhism considers the ultimate end that all our actions should serve not abstaining from violence but removing suffering and imparting joy to others. Sometimes, in order to do that, violence may actually be necessary. But the spirit in which the violence is committed is most important. Had I needed to actually hurt the driver to save the woman, I would have done so with deep regret, perhaps akin to how I felt when I needed to put one of our cats down because she was suffering with a terminal disease. Hope that clarifies my views.


  • RG

    I notice this concept at some very mundane levels: I “practice” my diet for tomorrow by listing today what I’m going to eat, what kind of exercise I’m going to do. That doesn’t mean I stick to it obsessively, but when a different opportunity arrives, having the plan makes me see the damage I’m about to do and helps mitigate it. It also, of course, helps me eat my vegetables if I’ve cooked those vegetables before I get hungry.

    I’m trying to do the same thing with studying; I have this absurd test that covers 3,000 pages of material and getting through it is like running a marathon. So I have to plan what to do when I need to study but I’m bored or tired or just hitting a difficult section. For me it helps to track my progress—and lack thereof; for me this is by hours, I know which sections haven’t gotten the requisite allotment. Again, the key is not to stick to it obsessively, but to know that once I get through the sections and hours I need to, then I’ll know where my weak spots are. It’s so different from just staring at the list of books and papers and telling myself to “do whatever I can.”

  • susan*5

    This keeps reminding me of the book “The Gift of Fear”—it talks about not letting fear overwhelm us (when we worry constantly to the point of paralysis) to learning to calmly listen to what our fears tell us, i.e., when confronted with a violent situation. Learning to calmly listen could be equated with what you are calling “planning ahead or practicing.”

  • A really excellent posting. I agree that it’s important to plan for “what-ifs,” especially in preparation for potential life crises. I’m very interested in Buddhism; I think I’ve sort of been into Zen, but every book I’ve tried to get on Buddhism confuses me. Any recommendations?

    Beth: Here’s one and here‘s another.


  • Lynne

    Domestic violence. Why doesn’t she just leave him, why doesn’t she stand up for herself, why doesn’t she kill him in his sleep? Because she can’t.

    This reminds me very much of the question—why don’t fat people eat less? Answer? Because, from where they’re sitting right now, they can’t. And why don’t diets do much good? Because they don’t address the actual cause of the problem, namely, why does overeating and inactivity feel like the right thing to do to a person who is obviously suffering from obesity? The diet books leave this question entirely to the sufferer.

    Just as it’s really easy to see what chronically fat people should do to be thin—eat less, get more exercise—it’s really easy for an outside observer to see what targets of domestic violence should do to solve their problems; leave him, get help, go to a shelter, stand up for herself, or whatever. Duh!

    What’s harder, and a lot more interesting, is to see what the barriers might actually be that are standing between the sufferer and the obvious solution.

    The sufferer might be too shy to tell you the truth about it, of course, but we might be able to win her trust through careful, courageous, non-judgmental listening to the sufferer in order to discover the barriers, and then wholehearted commitment to lower or remove the barriers to the best of our ability, even if it means going way outside our comfort zone for somebody else’s problem.


  • Kathy

    I stumbled across your site and am glad I did. This post and the thoughtful replies to it are deeply meaningful to me. I am definitely one of those people who rehearses worst case scenarios. I think it does cause me more stress and negativity than I would like to have. I would like to change my own hardwiring (I was brought up by an overly anxious and narcissistic mother) but don’t know where to begin. I love the idea of rehearsing “best case scenarios” instead. It gives my mind something to do as I’m waiting to make that left turn and hoping that someone doesn’t run the red light and smash into me.

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