The Power of Pause

Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash

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.

–          Victor Frankl, Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor

I hope the first line of this famous quote of Victor Frankl’s caught your eyes, because here he is talking about what most of us live through our lives unaware of. Let’s take an example. You just found out that you were fired – stimulus- and you are thinking “I’m a loser,” “I’m already too old to get hired again.” “I’ll lose my house and my family,” and feeling despair, anger, and shame. Then you go to a bar to drink until you can’t anymore – reaction.

Where is the space that Victor Frankl is talking about in this scenario? Although hard to detect and/or believe, there is a brief gap between hearing the news and thinking, “I’m a loser,” and in the gap we choose the way we react to the news. What creates suffering is not the news itself; but the way we react to it, when it was chosen while we are on an autopilot mode. Have you heard of how we live through our days in the autopilot mode, meaning that we do what we do moment by moment like a zombie without being aware of our experiences of the moment? We all have driven from home to work unable to recall anything on the roads, or suddenly we realize there is freshly brewed coffee, and wondering, “Did I make it?” (Has that happened only to me?)

Here is one way of living our lives as humans, not zombies: Pause after a stimulus before responding. Practice to pause or stop for a moment, before you start to attack back, after your partner said that you have not done a good job with cleaning.  Stop for a moment to pay the duly attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily reaction to learn the impact of your partner’s comment. Do you feel hurt? How do you know that you are hurting? What are the signs? Is your stomach churning? What does the comment mean to you? Notice the whole spectrum of the impact without being judgmental as much as you can.

If you take enough time to get to know how you have been affected, you will see your options of responses (not reactions). Feel like yelling back at your partner? Tears rolling down? Need to walk away because it is too overwhelming? Whatever your choices are, they will be coming from your authentic self, not from a zombie-like-state-of-mind. This is valuable and meaningful because you have made friends with yourself rather than negate or cut out a part of your truths, and thus, your inner self and your actions are aligned.

Practice to pause as often as you can throughout your day, especially at the times of emotional turbulence. We all have our favorite autopilot modes, for example, attacking back with sarcasm when we perceive criticism or blaming ourselves when we did not get what we want. By pausing, we are increasing the space between stimulus and response, and by doing this, we become empowered.  

Trauma and Trigger

Kate talked about the night when her dog was having a seizure, while her husband was away on a business trip leaving her and their dog, Cooper, alone in the house. She woke up in the middle of the night by the sound of Cooper’s frantic panting. She knew something was wrong with him as his eyes were full of fear and desperation. Soon enough, he started to quiver his body and then froze up with his toes curled up. “I panicked. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think straight, my head was spinning, and I was just sitting by him watching him in pain.” In about 15 minutes, the seizing power over him has moved through him and he was able to shake it off.

However, this experience has not moved through Kate even after a few weeks. As she recounted that incident with me, she felt her chest was pressed, her palms were sweaty, and she also felt lightheaded. She was fearful that she would not be able to handle it when it happens again, and this fear surfaced up whenever she looked into the eyes of her dog, preventing her from feeling loving and dear with him. Kate could not comprehend why she was having such an incapacitating reaction to something that appeared to be manageable. She knew Cooper’s seizures were mostly harmless as long as he was safe-guarded during them.

As we processed her reactions using EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing; a psychotherapy technique for treating trauma and other symptoms), it was discovered that this incident with her dog had brought her back to the time when her mother was dying of terminal cancer 15 years ago. “It was like that. There was no one to rely on so I felt so alone. And I felt helpless because no matter what I did, I could not save my mom. It was like her life was in my hands and I didn’t know what to do. I felt in the same way when Cooper was having a seizure.. helpless and incapable.”

Trauma is not only a subject for the combat veterans. Because of the way of life as it is, we have unfinished businesses that are undigested in our body and mind which would provoke reactions from mild discomfort to crippling disturbances when we face the right types of triggers. Some of the clues for unfinished businesses include disproportionately strong reactions (often feels like “it started out of blue” and “it does not make any sense to me”) and also the behaviors that we take up to decrease the discomfort, such as avoiding certain areas, activities, and meeting specific people, and also depending on substance use.

Every trauma is a complicated, multi-layered set of facts, memories, beliefs, bodily reaction, etc., and each person’s trigger is unique. If you feel you need other human being to be there with you to process your trauma, please do your homework to find a trustworthy professional. One factor that makes an experience a traumatic one is the lack of connection with supportive people as in Kate’s experience with her mother’s death. To heal from it, it is essential that we need to feel safe and supported.

But before going to see a therapist, here is what you can do on your own: Be curious about your reactions and take some time to get to know what is really going on inside you. There is no reason to be scared of it just because you do not understand what it is, and shoving it down will only get you so far. So, find some quiet time to notice your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations with minimal judgment. These are very useful information that will lead you to a meaningful life.

*This is a composite scenario based on my personal/professional experiences.

Difficult and Positive – Giving emotions a fair treatment

“I just want to be happy. Is that too much to ask? I want this sadness to go away so I can live my life.”

“I shouldn’t be feeling jealousy about his success, he’s my brother and I know he has worked hard for it.”

“After what happened to me, I just tried to think happy thoughts whenever I felt sad and frustrated.”

Sounds familiar? And you probably wonder what is wrong with thinking this way; Trying to be future-oriented, focusing on positive things, and wanting to be happy. We promote these values as a society, and we grow up being encouraged to embody them.

Sorry to be a party pooper, but I would like to shed light on the values and importance of feeling sad, frustrated, fearful, anxious, jealousy, angry, or whatever emotions that we often refer as “negative feelings.” We see them as “negative” because they don’t seem to help us feel pleasant or achieve what we want.

What I have seen in myself and other fellow humans is that we suffer more when we deny the existence of certain feelings in us, as we spend a great deal of energy on denying. It is as if you only have one hand to use because your other hand is always on duty of making sure the lid is on the Pandora’s box. There are constant anxiety and fears in the back of our minds that say, “it will be a disaster if this anger comes out” or “I will ruin my marriage if I let her know my frustration.” Without knowing, we spend lots of mental, physical, and spiritual energy on managing these “negative” feelings.

I am not writing to give you “5 easy steps to get rid of negative feelings.” I do not believe we can continue to keep negative feelings under control with denial and sugar-coating. If your intention is to befriend yourself and live as a whole person by learning new ways of relating to your emotions, then here are a few pointers for you. 

  • Know that some emotions are “difficult” rather than “negative,” because we often struggle to accept that we are experiencing them or they just do not feel pleasant to us. Emotions are neither good nor bad: they are neutral, and we judge them as good or bad. In my opinion, there are no “negative” emotions as each emotion brings us useful wisdom and information about us.
  • Notice and admit to yourself that you are feeling whichever emotions that arise in you, even if it is the worst feeling you can imagine. If you are feeling guilty about being angry, then admit the guilty feeling as well. It is already there, so there is no point in denying it. Just because you deny it and you are quite good at it, it does not mean it is not there. So admit and accept the existence of the feeling that you are experiencing.
  • Make time and space and experience the emotion fully in your body. Emotions arise in the forms of bodily sensations before we add thoughts, judgments, analysis, etc. For example, jealousy feels to me like burning sensations in my belly and throat, as well as tension in my jaws. There is alertness in my body as some destructive force wants to push out. As I stay with the urge it gradually softens and I find sadness that comes from not having something I want or need. If your bodily sensations and/or emotions are overwhelming, you might want to do this with a trustworthy person who can guide you and provide a safe container for you.
  • Lastly, if you’d like, gently ask yourself, “what wisdom does this difficult emotion have for me?” Sometimes I find more grieving to do underneath jealousy; or I realize the need to pursue certain elements in relationships that used to be hidden behind anger and frustration. No matter what you learn from them, all emotions are great teachers as they come to us to enrich our relationships with ourselves and others. So give them a fair treatment with respect and gratitude.

Non-doing self-care

Recently I have come across quite a few articles about self-care, some of which I found helpful and yet majority of which did not really stick with me. “Do yoga for 15 minutes first thing in the morning,” “make your favorite tea and have a quiet time,” and “a bubble bath at the end of the day,” etc. These are all nurturing activities that can reduce your anxiety level and help you feel replenished on a daily basis.

What I would like to point out is a different kind and seemingly easier way of self-care: Non-doing self-care. Have you ever felt overwhelmed just by thinking that I need to do one more thing to release the stress from doing too much? I have. Squeezing in more in the to-do list requires adjustment, rearrangement, and let’s not forget, courage, especially so when it is something you are not familiar with. This is one of the reasons why most of the suggestions do not stick with me, and if you are like me, you might be feeling guilty about “not doing enough self-care.”

On the other hand, choosing not to do something that does not serve you is a great way of self-care, because it eliminates the source of stress and opens a space for choice and freedom. 

So here is my list of non-doing self-care ideas:

  • Not writing a blog post when I am not in the mood (yes, mood is very important in the production of a good blog post).
  • Choosing not to cook dinner because I feel tired and overwhelmed.
  • Choosing not being on Twitter because I have more than enough screen time and my eyes are not getting any younger.
  • Saying no to a party that makes me nervous just thinking about being there.
  • Not doing chores or quitting it half-way (when it can wait) because I have other things I want to do.
  • Choosing not to have dairy foods (I am allergic to dairy) because I care about how my body feels, not because I shouldn’t.
  • Choosing not to reply to a friend’s email because I don’t see any value in maintaining the relationship.

What we often miss when it comes to self-care is that a shift in perspectives on “why” can make a big difference. If I feel guilty about not going to a party and feel like a loser because I am not a people person, the decision is rather a source of stress. In the meantime, if I refused to go because I am aware that the anxiety is overwhelming and overweighs the benefits of going, then not going serves the purpose of taking good care of myself. The bottom line is that making the decision out of a caring heart makes it a self-care act.

As I grow older, I realize a tremendous value in only keeping what works for me in my life. A wise elimination is in fact a great habit to develop, and the truth is that we all practice this non-doing self-care at times without even realizing. What is in your non-doing self-care list?