Training to Overcome My Fear of Firearms

When we hear the word firearm, we all think different things. Some of us may think about the actual metal and polymer structures that make up a tangible item. Others may think of emotions associated with shooting. Those might be exhilaration, empowerment, or fear. If you have read my story, you know that, for me, the word firearm triggers all of these things at once.  When I hear firearm, I visualize something real, I think of the scientific principles that make it fire, and I feel a combination of contradictory emotions. I think these things because they map onto my experiences.

I am not satisfied with everything my mind activates when I hear the word firearm.  I love that it connects to my scientific background. I love that I can feel exhilarated and empowered. But I hate that my mind retrieves fear from my emotional toolbox. If my PhD in education has taught me anything about knowledge, it is that those subconscious connections are not permanent and that they build on other things. I have the power to change them by providing myself with new experiences. This is how I knew that I needed to get additional training. I needed new experiences.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a two day Ladies Defensive Handgun Course hosted by Armed in Heels and taught by Fred Mastison of Force Options. This is what I learned: the instructor makes all the difference.  I was able to have amazing experiences to help me associate firearms with exhilaration and empowerment while breaking and overcoming some associations with fear. Here is what I learned about the process of seeking firearms training. This is the advice I would go back and tell my past self to help fight the fear while getting trained:

  1. Talk to others. Just getting started? Talk to people to find out if they have any recommendations for firearms instructors. Ask them if they would send their daughter or mother to the same trainer and why. My husband had originally trained with Force Options. I remember him coming home from class one day and describing some of the class. He told me that the instructor did not force one approach on his students and that he really took the time to find out what level his students were at so that he could adjust instruction appropriately to maximize learning. What I heard: the instructor is open minded, won’t yell at me if I don’t do it right, and will make sure I’m ready for everything we try. To me, that sounded safe. But I still wanted to find out more before committing.

     
  2. Meet with the instructor before the class.  I was able to meet Fred at SHOT Show in January at an informal gathering. I was able to talk to him and see him interact with others. What I learned was how kind he was to others even when they had differing opinions. What I took in: the instructor would listen to me if I had questions and really care to help me. I also realized that I would be comfortable in his presence rather than intimidated by his authority. This is a good time to ask what the instructors teaching philosophy is. Fred’s was two-fold. First, he wanted his students to feel empowered and driven to protect themselves. (He would probably say he was training for the warrior mindset – but I encoded it as driven and empowered.)  Second, he would get students to that point by using a crawl-walk-run strategy, meaning skills would start simple and build on each other throughout the course. This philosophy was consistent with the reasons I wanted training, so it seemed like a perfect fit. But I still wanted to find out if he would be able to help me with my emotional challenge.

     
  3. Tell the instructor your story. There is a tendency to want to hide our weaknesses from others. It seems terrifying to approach an instructor and say something like, “I would love to take your class but first you must know that firearms make me fearful sometimes”. But, for me, this is was incredibly necessary. I needed to know that my instructor would understand that if I was having a hard time it may very well be a result of an emotion rather than a logistical set of procedures. I needed to know that my instructor could acknowledge that some drills might be scarier for me than others and that I might need verbal reminders like “just breathe” or “relax your mind” instead of “focus on your draw” or “let’s speed that one up”. A few months before the course I published my story and Fred read it. Knowing that he was aware of my full story freed me from guilt or embarrassment when the fear crept in. I knew that he knew why, so I knew that it would be ok. This gave me the strength to be proud of how far I had come rather than be ashamed of where I wasn’t. So tell enough of your story so that it does not make you feel ashamed. A good instructor will want to support you and feel honored to be included in your journey.

  4. Bring a carefully selected buddy to participate, too. When women are stressed about everyday life things they often turn to girlfriends to vent, talk, problem-solve, and get support. We know that they won’t judge us and feel safe being vulnerable. I knew I needed a friend like this with me on the range. I needed someone who understood me and that I trusted completely. I needed someone who could see my emotional warning signs and know exactly what to do. And I also needed someone who I knew I could have a fantastic time with. Britney Starr was my choice.  We laughed, shot, joked, shot, danced, shot, sang, shot, cried, shot, made fun of the boys, shot, cheered each other on, shot, took pictures, shot, retook the pictures because we didn’t like the first ones, shot, posted the girl-approved pictures online, shot,  complained about our body aches, shot, and did all the other things friends do together. We had a fantastic time.

     
  5. Dress for yourself. There is often pressure to dress in specific ways throughout our everyday experiences.  While there are some things that need to be worn for safety reasons, others are up to you. Dress for comfort. The first day I wore my jeans on a this-is-not-a-jeans-kind-of-day. I ended up uncomfortable and annoyed with my clothes. In normal situations, this is something I’m pretty used to. I love my femininity and often am dressed in business attire all day, heels and all. But while I was working towards learning in an area that was new, the last thing I wanted was to be uncomfortable. Day two I stole a pair of my husband’s pants, threw some bike shorts underneath, and said good bye to anything tight. Wow what a difference. And, on a side note, I have no idea why boys get all the comfy clothes!

     
  6. Talk it out. Cognitively, we hold a lot of information in our minds when we are learning. In traditional classrooms, we have a variety of tools to help us organize that information. We can use notes, computers, or books to help “off-load” that information from our minds to paper so that we have more mind space to think. During firearms training, however, we often do not get those tools to help us conceptually off-load information. As a result, we get all this information in our minds. Strong negative emotions such as fear and anger limit our abilities to make connections with new information. So when those emotions are introduced, we need a way of off-loading information so that we can make sense of it. One way is to talk things out. Talk to your buddy. When you are looking at your shots, do not just think about them in your mind. Talk about them, even if just to yourself. This gives your mind the ability to hear the things you are saying and can assist in making sense of them. When I talked drills out with Britney, I often was able to figure out what I was doing and what to focus on. And, even better, she was able to help me once she knew what I was thinking. This also made it easier to ask questions. Since talking through things helped organize information faster, it was easy to figure out what I needed to ask in order to get support.

     
  7. Make it two days, at least. The first day of training was a time to acclimate to the shooting landscape. I went through a variety of emotions and feelings from excitement, confidence, and happiness to trepidation, judgment, and fear.  By the end of the day I was emotional exhausted. Though I felt proud of myself and had gotten a lot of practice in improving my skills, it was not an ideal stopping place for my training. That night I had a lot of weird nightmares and woke up incredibly anxious. But after about 30 minutes on day two is when everything changed exponentially for the better. I’m not sure what happened but I can characterize day two as a turning point in my fight against fear. I was able to focus on mechanics because my emotional barriers were down. I began to feel like my regular, empowered, driven, and confident self…. with a firearm. The instructor also helped us build on skills from the first day. This gave us time to practice, process, make improvements, and practice again. It also gave him a chance to get to know his students. By the second day it was very clear that Fred knew which strategies worked best with each of his students. He differentiated his instruction so that everyone could continue to learn in the individualized best way possible.

     
  8. Be proud of yourself. It is so easy to focus on the challenges we are facing rather than the things we should be celebrating.  By the end of the first day I was stressed and slightly discouraged. The instructor continued to help me remember the things I was doing well and that I should be proud of. I remember at the end of the first day he said something like, “You all have been out here a long time. And even after being fatigued, you are still doing an impressive job.” His continuous reframing helped me to shift my thinking towards being proud of what I had done.

  9. If at all possible, train with Fred Mastison of Force Options.  As an evaluator of educational practice, I was impressed with how cognitively and emotionally supportive Fred’s instructional strategies were. As a woman learning to become proficient with firearms while overcoming fear, I was thankful to have an instructor so supportive of helping me fight the fear. Fred said in his course that we should train with multiple instructors on multiple occasions. While I’m sure that is true, I could not have chosen an experience better suited for my training needs.

Today I woke up and was actually sad that I wasn’t going back to the range. When I thought about the course, it made me feel happy. And when I pictured my Glock I actually felt excited to go get more practice in. Today my mind decided not to retrieve fear from my emotional toolbox when I thought of firearm. In the fight against fear, I’m winning. I’m not sure if this will be permanent. And, to be honest, I really don’t care. Because, even if it isn’t, I know that I can beat the fear again if I need to.  When I think about my experience in the course I remember experiencing success, friendship, support, and encouragement. But when I stop to think what had the biggest impact I have no doubts – the instructor made all the difference.

Links (Click the words of where you want to go)

Force Options Tactical Training and Security: Facebook & Website
Women's Outdoor News: Facebook & Website
Britney Starr:

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