‘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 E. Frankl
I recently listened to a Facebook live with Marijke de Jong, where she beautifully illustrated what the growth and freedom referred to above looks like right now. I’d love to share some of her thoughts with you, as well as some of my own. Let’s dive in, with Marijke’s STEREO pneumonic ?: stimulus, thinking, emotions, reaction/response, effect and ‘other’.
The current stimulus is the situation we’re in; the facts of where we are and what we are dealing with. First of all there is the Coronavirus, closely followed by the decisions, restrictions and rules put in place by our government, followed by the news we’re taking in daily. All of these constitute personal stimuli, prompting a reaction in each of us.
Our individual situations vary greatly. Some of us no longer have jobs, families have been separated as one or more members fight this virus on the frontline, many self-employed are without an income for an indefinite period, many have died without families present, and many of us have said goodbye to colleagues, family or friends. In time, many more of us will.
We have no control over any of these things. To use Steven Covey’s phrase, they are ‘in our circle of concern, but outside of our circle of influence’. These things are the reality we are faced with, and recognising reality is important.
After acknowledging the reality, we travel down one of two pathways.
We spend loads of time thinking about the things described above. We think about what should be; what the world should look like, and what we should be able to do. We also think about what shouldn’t be; the decisions and restrictions we’re under, and how we shouldn’t have to be confined to our houses. We think about what is right and what is wrong with the world, and we start to form strong opinions about these things.
Our thoughts lead to emotions. We might feel mad, sad or bad, in Marijke’s words. We might be overcome with emotion, anxious and worried. Our emotions spiral. We become more and more stressed.
Stress is a result of reality not meeting our expectations. At this point, all of our expectations for day-to-day living have had to change drastically, which means we’re all experiencing stress. We’ll probably experience this mismatch of expectations vs reality often as the situation changes globally and locally.
Our reaction to our situation is guided by our thinking and emotions. We may find ourselves paralysed, unable to act at all. We may find ourselves bingeing on chocolates, alcohol, Netflix … or all three. Or we might escalate the drama of the situation, feeding on sensational and fear-based news and gossip.
Our reaction will have an effect on those around us, even when we are isolated. Our reaction can lead to quarrels with our spouses, fear in our children, increased stress and worry in those around us and those we communicate with. Our reaction will also impact on ourselves. When we binge on chocolates and Netflix, not moving, we gain weight, lose muscle and endurance, and make ourselves feel worse. Feeling bad physically can take us back to the top of the anxiety spiral as we think and experience emotions about our new situation.
At this point (or at any point between the situation and our response) we can choose to ask an ‘other’ question, or try to find an ‘other’ meaning in the situation. You can question yourself, your beliefs and your thoughts. Is your opinion the truth? Or is it just your opinion, loud and clear as you fall in the trap of the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Is your opinion based on thought or emotion, and how rooted in the present are they?
The second path we might follow could look something like this:
We start with a thought.
Our thoughts and our words have a profound effect on our emotional state, and on our actions. When we consciously think about our situation simply as reality, not something wrong or frightening or inconvenient, we’re better able to accept the situation for what it is. We free our minds from entangling emotions. Then our thoughts can take another helpful turn; how can we use this situation? What positive thing can we take from this reality we face?
This pragmatic response does not mean we are happy with the situation, or that we agree with it. It simply means that we’ll find a way to use the situation to achieve something good, to do something good, or to be something good.
This leads to certain emotions.
Pragmatic thoughts will lead us to feel grateful and glad about the things that we do have. As we focus more on what we can do, we become more aware of what we have and less aware of what we have lost. This is a powerful emotional place to be in. It is highly constructive and valuable for problem solving and finding solutions.
When we ask our brain a question, it will come up with an answer. When we ask, ‘What is wrong?’ we’ll get plenty of responses. When we ask ‘What is right?’ our brain will answer that, too.
We can then take response-ability.
We now have the ability to respond to the situation instead of simply reacting to it. A response is considered, measured and somewhat balanced, while a reaction is immediate and emotional. It is in that gap between stimulus and response that our freedom and our growth lie. We can now be purposeful and intentional with our action, infusing our response with a sense of meaning and purpose.
This, of course, has an effect.
When we take responsibility, we act in a way that is creative, supportive and constructive to ourselves and others. Our actions leave a positive mark on those around us. We are more likely to foster acceptance, trust, love, growth and a sense of community. We also pave the way for others to do the same. We can then use our collective minds to come up with creative solutions or options for action that any one of us on our own might not have thought of.
Lastly, we come back to other.
No matter how well-considered our response, we should always ask ourselves the ‘other’ question. How might I have done things differently? What other factors could I have taken into consideration? Were my thoughts based on reality, or merely my own perceptions ? We can always find ways to improve on previous solutions and contribute differently to our situation.
Wrong and right
Neither of the above ‘pathways’ for thinking is wrong or right. The point is to become aware of which is your habitual pathway, and find ways to change or improve it. If you’re on the first pathway, at any point you can observe where you are and choose to change it. That does not mean where you are is bad; it is a completely natural, human response to what is happening on a global scale. It may be helpful to recognise where on either of these pathways you are. This awareness precedes any kind of meaningful action.
If you’re already on the second path, you may still find yourself overwhelmed by the situation and switching back to the first path in your thinking, emotional state or actions. Again, this is OK. There is no wrong or right, there is just what you choose to be, and what you choose to do. It is much more helpful if we look at ourselves without judgement, simply observing our thoughts and our emotions without criticism, but rather with curiosity. When we start to see our thoughts and emotions without judgement, but as they are – a ‘raw’ response to a situation or piece of news, or to our own belief about either – then it becomes a little easier to choose to change our thoughts and responses.
One of the things I’m focusing on in this situation is the opportunity to grow. Like many other moms around the world, I suddenly find myself with a greater workload, but without the support system that allowed me to have a job I am passionate about while still being a mom. This means momentous juggling, re-scheduling, planning, throwing the plans out the window, and communicating with my husband, in a time when there seems to be no time. And at the same time, my community and my family need my support and encouragement.
Once again I fall back on the adage to be kind to myself. In addition, I’d like to be creative about what’s in front of me! I encourage us all to do the same. There is a solution to our individual situations – we just have to ask our mind to start coming up with the answers!
‘For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.’ Viktor E. Frankl
To listen to the Facebook Live with Marijke de Jong on this topic, you can head over to her Facebook page.
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