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Between Stimulus And Response — A Refresher

Canon City, Colorado

October 20, 2020

I have found this insight to have a profoundly positive effect on me. When I remember it. 🤪

A refresher from Susan David (with some additions by me).

Ever had a toothache? Sometimes the pain starts small, just a little twinge when you bite down on something cold. For many of us, a visit to the dentist stirs up age-old anxieties, so we put the pain out of our minds and hope it goes away on its own. A month later, we might find that the initial twinge has become an unbearable throbbing, and the problem that could have once been treated with a small filling now requires a root canal. By letting our trepidation guide our actions, we’ve made things an order of magnitude worse. This is an example of a mistake that we all make from time to time. We confuse our feelings [and thoughts] for facts. You feel that a colleague is undermining you in a meeting, so you clam up or lash out. Your partner brings up a problem in the family finances in a way that feels like an attack, so you change the subject. You are mortified by a medical diagnosis, so you fall prey to magical thinking. While our emotions can be valuable data, these scenarios show the danger in treating them as though they were directions we must follow. As he did on so many topics, the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote insightfully about these moments. He observed that, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." [He didn’t actually write this sentence; Stephen Covey did in summarizing Frankl’s insight.] Being emotionally agile requires us to mindfully seize that space between stimulus and response. Think about the times when you feel most anxious and afraid. Which subjects trigger your fight or flight response? What leaves you with a lump in your throat or a pit in your stomach? Maybe it’s a suddenly sullen child, an ever-waning savings account, or a slight tremor in your hands that you worry is a symptom of something bigger. Now consider how you respond when this matter demands your attention. Do you push it out of your mind? Do you get angry? Are you letting how you feel (“I’m scared and want this to go away”) dictate how you act?

Next time you encounter this trigger, rather than react immediately, try pausing and taking a deep breath. Consider what would actually allay your concerns, or at least let you face them with knowledge and fortitude. In the hypothetical situations above, this could mean an honest personal or professional conversation, a meeting with a financial planner, or an appointment with your doctor. With this approach we can live more mindfully, reclaim our freedom, and move forward in a way that is congruent with our values.

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