My best friend is the master of the pause. It’s his legit superpower. He grew up in an environment that was often saturated with reckless words, and he was committed to showing up differently. Some people really don’t get the power words can have to hurt or to heal. I’ve been guilty of that throughout the years, and it’s not something of which I’m proud. I strive to be better with my words and reactions. Constantly.
My friend is the most thoughtful person that I’ve ever encountered. And when I say thoughtful, I mean measured in the expression of his thoughts. No matter what the topic or question, he’ll always take a pause and collect his thoughts before answering. It’s an incredible thing for an emotive, East Coast Italian like myself to witness; it leaves me in awe.
You could say I hail from a family of reactors, with not always pretty results. I mean, they call it a nuclear reactor not a nuclear responder for a reason. It blows sh*t up. Some of my past reactions have had that unfortunate distinction. I’d make excuses and rationalize that hey, I’m passionate. I have a big, ebullient personality. I live big and love big. Looking back, I can see that all I was doing was rationalizing my lack of self- control. I can embrace the power of the pause and still have a big personality, and I think that’s the greatest way to love big.
Love lives in the pause.
Mindfulness creates space between events and your reactions, between thoughts and your words. It creates a layer. A buffer, if you will. One of my favorite quotes, probably because it addresses my struggle, is attributed to Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Response versus reaction. Freedom versus being held hostage by your emotions. Let’s look at the difference between the two. A reaction tends to be instinctual: an instantaneous response to a person or situation without much thought given to the outcome or consequence of the interaction. It’s largely unconscious. It could be favorable or not, depending on your feelings, depending on your mood.
Some reactions are necessary. Survival instinct, defense mechanisms, all that good stuff. I’m not talking about those scenarios. Of course, react away in those instances. I’m talking about everyday events and challenges, when it’s not life or death or necessary to react quickly: conversations with loved ones, colleagues, friends. A response is a reaction all grown up. Matured. Tempered by the conscious as well as the unconscious. It takes the outcome into consideration and responds according to the desired result. It harnesses the power of the pause and transforms itself from an emotional crapshoot to emotional intelligence.
A reaction is about the moment, whereas a response is about the outcome. A response is the thinking person’s reaction. So how do you learn to respond rather than react? Mindfulness.
I know, I know—for some of us this sounds so esoteric, so out there. My Virgo mind tends to like concrete solutions, easily definable. How the heck do you quantify mindfulness? You can’t. Yet the things that tend to be the biggest stretch/challenge for me (meditation, affirmations, mindfulness) are ironically the very mechanisms by which I see the greatest results.
Again, it’s not that difficult. It just takes awareness and practice. And before you claim that you’re stuck in your ways and can’t learn new tricks like mindfulness, I call bull. And I was thoughtful in that response, promise. Recent research supports the effectiveness of mindfulness training in teaching older adults how to respond and not react. Findings suggest that mindfulness can simultaneously improve cognitive and emotional regulation, which may be particularly beneficial for older adults. And that’s really what a response is: self-regulation. It’s not a reactional free-for-all. So, buckle up buttercup, you, too, can learn to harness this superpower. Your heart and health will thank you.
And your loved ones will too.
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment— noticing your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and the world around you. Mindfulness is the stopgap to your reaction when you’re feeling triggered (e.g., someone cuts you off in traffic; a coworker sends a snarky email; your spouse forgets your anniversary). Before being triggered though, let’s start practicing mindfulness a few times throughout the day. Just because. Why wait for the sh*t to hit the fan? By practicing mindfulness throughout the day, you’re priming the pump for when the inevitable trigger hits. Kinda like a dry run.
Mindful pauses are wonderful for your peace of mind, triggered or not. By simply taking a minute or two to check in with your body and mind, breathe, and notice your environment, you’re setting yourself up for success later down the line as well. Habitual practice enables its natural occurrence when faced with triggering stimuli. Our goal is to dial down the unconscious autopilot of emotions and tap into the conscious response—which I promise is a way better driver. Fewer bumps and harrowing curves.
Triggering stimulus alert. What do you do? Take a mindful pause. Breathe and buy yourself some more time. Allow yourself to feel the emotion and take a step back from it, like an observer. The distance allows you to contemplate a response. Examine the circumstances and all possible explanations. Research indicates that mindfulness encourages cognitive flexibility, a fancy term for generating alternative explanations. It’s seeing the big picture, not just your narrow view.
What are your thoughts? What are you feeling? Label that emotion. Notice any sensations in your body. For me, it’s like I can literally feel the blood pressure rising like a tsunami on the inside. Some feel a tightness in their chest or throat. Continue to breathe. Count to five. Now throw a throat punch. Kidding. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.
Pausing. Checking in. Noticing self and surroundings. Breathing. Contemplating the response. Considering the outcome you desire. Getting perspective. If there’s time, you could even play the movie in your mind. Visualize your potential responses and how the resulting scenarios may play out. It’s not rocket science. Your emotions don’t have to control the show. You get to choose your response. No one can make you angry, resentful, or sad without your permission. Think about that. I mean, really think about that.
There’s power in that.