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Between Stimulus and Response

Updated: Oct 7, 2022

“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, Austrian psychiatrist

Yesterday, mid-morning, my husband looked at me in the eyes and said, “Have I done something to offend you?” This was code for an inquiry into exactly why it was that I was being witchy. In fact, I did feel irritable, but it had not registered with me.

The issue was not with John, but with the danged smoke from forest fires suffocating our entire valley. This is October. If life were going as it should, we would all be out hiking and biking and enjoying the fresh air. Instead, it feels like I am living in a fireplace. My nose runs, my head hurts, I cough and sneeze. Yuk, yuk, yuk!

John tried to soothe me around the smoke experience. He was a smokejumper and worked for the forest service for several summers. He had encountered serious smoke. It was survivable. Harrumph.

Then John tried a bit of humor. He reminded me that he’d gone to college at Pomona in Southern California. They had a little joke about their area called UCLA. When the smog lifts, you see L.A. Bah.

The only thing that helped me work with myself, talk myself down mentally, was thinking about (reading some quotes from) Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist. We’ve lost some generational learning about Frankl.

Many past leadership retreats spouted quotes from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written in 1946. The book was about Frankl’s experience of being a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. It was one of the top 10 most influential books in the United States and translated into many languages.

Frankl’s main thesis is that when people have a purpose – something larger than themselves that they can dedicate themselves to which gives them meaning, they can bear most anything. One of his famous sayings is “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” Frankl was also a great believer in our ability to make choices – that there is a space between stimulus and response.

A few days ago, John and I met with our weekly compassion circle (directions for starting your own compassion circle are in our resources) and discussed the recent murder in our town. We wanted to use that tragic event to work with ourselves. We shared ideas about how to talk ourselves down whenever we got triggered or activated by another’s behavior.

One person in our circle was an elected official who served for many years with an outrageously behaved fellow official (on one occasion, the man tried to goad him into a fist fight). One of the ways our friend kept cool was to concentrate on his job, to serve the people. This kept him from getting ensnared by the other’s behaviors.

Another person shared being attacked verbally with accusations that “hit right in the gut.” His solution in that encounter was to look at his wife. The loving look she mirrored back to him kept him centered.

We reminded ourselves of the 60’s research by neuroscientist Paul McLean. McLean's basic idea is still used for helping us understand our flight or fight instincts. According to McLean, we have similar brain structures to animals – at least in some ways. We have a “reptilian brain” which is quite like the crocodiles. Layered over that a mammalian brain (like a rabbit’s and other mammals), and on top of that our unique primate or neomammalian brain which is the most rational.

When we get activated, or to use emotional intelligence guru, Dan Goleman’s term, we have an amygdala hijack. We behave pretty much like a crocodile under duress. We must know that about ourselves, be aware of our software, to register what’s going on, and take advantage of that space between stimulus and response.

We can take slow, deep breaths to help our physiology and body chemistry. One of the compassion circle participants said that she used a little mental checklist to divert her attention and put her rational brain back in charge. She’d say in her mind things like “name-calling,” check.

Lately I have decided to use a fictional character whom I admire to help me talk myself down. The character is a chief of police. He’s wise and compassionate, sees beneath the behavior of others to reach into their deeper motivations, feelings, thoughts, fears, wounds, and needs. I’m going to pretend I’m him when I find myself wrestling with a person’s inner crocodile and don't want my own inner croc to get into it.

I had never thought about how to talk myself down in situations not involving other people, but the environment, smoke. I have not seen the chief of police deal with that.

In general, we get activated by our belief that the world or the situation is not being as it should or people are not behaving as they should (negative judgments). That judging thing brings out the croc in us. Two battling crocs never get to win-win situations.

It reminds me of an old folktale about a feuding pair (sometimes a farmer, sometimes a merchant). A divine messenger is sent to one of them.

“The almighty has sent me to bless you. Whatever you wish for will be granted. However, whatever you wish for the other will get double.”

“So, if I ask for a ton of gold, the other will get two? If I ask for 1,000 acres of land, the other will get 2,000?

“Correct, you understand.”

The man scratched his head. Then his face brightened. “I’ve got it, put out my left eye.”

That’s how crocs react. That's how we react when we are in our crocodile place. We are more motivated by violence and getting even than by finding solutions that work for everyone.

In my case, I cannot get revenge on the smoke, but I can be irritated with my husband. Silly...from a neomammalian perspective

Fortunately, John kindly helped me take stock of what was going on internally for me. That awareness shifted my attitude and my behavior in ways that helped me be productive. Sure, I can still give myself a little compassion - empathically soothe my inner croc. Smoke sucks. Truthfully, I don't like it one little bit! (Frankl, by the way, believed suffering is an ineradicable part of life and that value and meaning could be found in suffering).

Now, I can focus on doing something productive today rather than brow-beating the people I love and waving my fist at the skies.

How can we become more self-aware, talk ourselves down when we are in our crocodile head space, and journey together to The Good Life?


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