By Dr. Ken Larsen
Remember that quote from Viktor Frankl? ““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.” I’ve been working on acting on this insight. I’ve recognized that sometimes my response is more “reactive”, more of a knee jerk, reflexive reaction, such as the unkind words that tumble out of my mouth in a moment of minor road rage. Or the quick judgmental opinion that comes to mind when I hear someone speak from values that I don’t share. These unchosen reactions are a detriment to my mental health and happiness, not to mention the negative impact on others.
What I want for myself is to pause in that space that Frankl describes and choose my response based on a perceptive interpretation of what I want. Do I want to dump a load of reflexive anger, or do I want to respect myself and the other enough to make a better choice?
This is easier for me to think about and talk about than to actually do it. What helps me is the growing understanding we have of how our brain has developed reactions to experiences that might be seen as threatening. One of the most basic of these reactions is the “stranger danger” reaction. When we encounter someone or something that is unfamiliar and unknown our first response is often self-protective. This is not a bad thing. This is part of our inherited survival instincts. This first response is a “fight/flight/freeze” response which bypasses the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain where we make choices, and sets us up for a defensive or offensive reaction. I think some of what we have labeled “prejudice” is this sort of autonomic reaction to an unfamiliar situation. With this understanding, I believe we need to cut ourselves and others a bit of slack when encountering the unfamiliar.
I can learn to recognize a reflexive reaction and I’m finding that if I can find that “pause” place until my pre-frontal cortex comes on line, I can make a kindlier considered response which is more reflective of my chosen values to be respectful and to “live and let live.”
In our growing understanding of the development of our brain we can find a new freedom to choose a better way to relate to ourselves and others. Rather than condemning what we now know as survival adaptations, like the reactive response to a perceived threat, we can learn to become more aware of what is reflexive and what is chosen behavior. With that awareness we can focus our conscious attention on choosing behaviors that move us toward what we want. The more we can fulfill those inner Quality World pictures that are our sense of what we want that will meet our needs, the more we will enjoy a higher quality of mental health and happiness.