‘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.” Viktor Frankl
Life is nothing more than stimulus and response. For every action there is a reaction. We move through our lives performing actions and gauging results, guided by our expectations. We come to expect specific reactions, from people, from machines, from nature.
If we move through the day and everything goes as expected, it’s a relatively stress free day. But if things don’t meet our expectations, then the stress creeps in.
So much of our stress, anger, frustration and sadness comes from our struggle to reconcile situations, events and other people’s actions, with our own expectations.
I used to be a highly stressed person. Type A. Always on the move. I was getting things done. Achieving goals. Keeping all of the plates spinning at once. Sure, it was stressful. But I was thriving under pressure. That’s how I got the things done! I was a control freak.
Throughout our lives we are faced with situations that challenge our notion of control, time and time again. But we fight against it. We struggle with each person that we try to train, and each situation we try to manipulate. We get stressed when things don’t bend to our will, people don’t see things our way, life doesn’t perform up to our standards.
If living with another person intensified the challenge for me, then having children set off an explosion right at the center of it. It became increasingly frustrating when things hardly ever went as I expected. It became even more frustrating when no one around me seemed to be invested in my expectations.
I asked questions like “Why doesn’t anyone else care about this mess?” so many times. Probably thousands of times. No one would even answer me!
Not only do I have my own expectations, but now I am expecting other people to have the same expectations, and I am expecting them to take action. So many expectations. So many opportunities to be frustrated and stressed.
One day I finally answered myself. No one else cares about this, because no one else cares about this. Because you are the only person that this upsets. And you can’t control what other people care about. You can’t control other peoples’ expectations. You are not in control.
In an effort to live a less stressful life, I set out to put just as much energy into controlling my own reactions, as I had been putting into trying to control the actions of the people and things around me.
When I stopped trying to control external things, and I only worked on my own self, I began to notice how I reacted to everything. Every single thing. All day long.
As you move through your day notice how you react:
When the phone rings
When someone enters the room
When they leave
When you’re feeling too cold or too hot
When someone says something you disagree with
When someone complains
When the volume is too loud
When it’s not loud enough
When someone cuts you off in traffic
When someone rides the shoulder to get ahead in line
When someone expresses opposing political views
When it rains
When you accomplish something
When you outperform someone else
When you feel pain
When things go your way
When things don’t go your way at all
When you find out you were right
When you find out you were wrong
When someone shares great news
When someone shares bad news.
Notice the timing of your reactions to the people, places, and conditions around you?
Do you react immediately?
Do you pause?
Do you take time to think?
Do you shut down?
Do you avoid reacting?
Is your reaction based on history and habits?
Does your reaction ever take you by surprise?
Observe your reactions to recurring situations, people, places or conditions.
Is it always the same reaction? Is it different?
Do you reflect on your reactions? Do you replay them over and over in your mind? Rehash them? Regret them? Try to rewrite them? Revel in them? Gloat?
Notice your reactions to every thing that happens all day long. Notice them for days. Once you find the patterns, then you can insert the pause.
It takes a lot of practice. It takes self awareness, mindfulness, and hard work. It takes a lot of effort. It’s much harder than the old practice of trying to control outside things and then getting stressed or flying off the handle when it doesn’t work out. It’s much harder than being guided by your own expectations and false sense of control.
But once you are mindfully aware of your reactions, and you learn to insert a pause, perhaps you can change them. Or perhaps not.
Life is nothing more than stimulus and response. And space.
That is where the real freedom is. The freedom and the growth are there in that space.
Freedom and Growth Can be yours!
How to get started:
Inhale while counting 4
Pause while counting to 4
Exhale while counting to 4
My earworm. Loaded by Primal Scream