“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
If we could slow life down to micro-moments, if we could literally alter time like a movie turning it into sloooooow moooooootiiiooon so that we could elongate the critical moment when our mind veers off like a runaway locomotive and instead redirect it to stay on the smooth track of clear thinking, everything would change. As challenging as it sounds, that’s exactly what we must do if we’re going to rewire the brain to respond to the stimulus that sends the anxious mind into overdrive.
Let’s break this down with a common example alanis morissette on love addiction of how this shows up in relationship anxiety:
“I’ll receive a text with a loving gesture, maybe a flirty emoticon or something sexy, and I’ll feel my chest tighten.”
“How do you respond when that happens?”
“I usually freeze or recoil in some way, and then I tell myself that he’s not right for me.”
“Right. So you see it’s not the freezing or recoiling that’s the problem. It’s the story you tell yourself that determines what happens next and next and next. When you tell yourself the story that recoiling from his flirty gestures is evidence that he’s not right for you, you send yourself down the rabbit hole of anxiety. What would happen if, instead, you told yourself something like, ‘This is a fear response. When I close up or tighten like this I know I’m in fear. And when I get very honest with myself I know that I’m terrified of real closeness.'”
“I can try that,” my client says. “But then I can hear my mind say something like, ‘But what if it is my truth? What if that response if my body telling me I’m with the wrong guy?'”
“You need to put that thought on hold and see this new response as an experiment of assuming that your trigger response is coming from fear. What you’re doing isn’t working, so it’s time to try something else. And you can splash your inflamed doubting mind with a cooling truth like, ‘I’ve had a lifetime of anxiety. Why wouldn’t it show up in the riskiest endeavor of my life?'”
We pause here to remember that ego-fear – the part of us whose life depends on remaining in control and seeks to avoid risk at any cost – will throw up every roadblock it can think of to try to get you to avoid taking the risk of loving. Your job is to name every obstacle as fear and not bite the hook.
When you don’t bite the book and instead name that voice as an intrusive thought, you’ve done the hardest part of this work. Now there’s a space inside. Now you have the power to choose what comes next instead of being a victim to your runaway thought trains that lead you into the same dark ditch every time. Now, with the headlight of curiosity strapped to the engine of your mind, you can own your fear and inquire about its roots. You can ask questions like, “What does this remind me of? When did I first start feeling it?” which may invite a storehouse of memories to percolate up to the conscious mind.
For this client, once we disentangled from the thought and slowed down enough to access another part of her being, a memory arose and she shared, “This tightening in my chest. It reminds me of the time I was at a friend’s house when I was 8 years old and I was horribly homesick. I felt like there was something literally sitting on my chest, and I would cry and cry of homesickness.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. There’s always a palpable shift in the session when the client drops down out of head space and moves into her body-and-heart memory. Oftentimes, words will cease altogether, and we’ll sit together in pregnant silence. Time slows down here; there’s no need to rush. There’s no need to figure it out or escape. We’ve landed in the timeless realm of the heart, where the feelings of an eigth-year old girl at a sleepover are as present now as they were then. We’ve walked through a portal together, and I’m transported into her world. Miraculously, the anxiety, at least for those moments, is gone.
Here’s an example from another client:
“At least a dozen times a day I have the thought, ‘I want a different life.’ By different I mean not with my husband but with some fantasy guy that will make me feel alive and worthy.”
“How do you respond to that thought?”
“I usually try to douse it with some truth-water and say something like, ‘Yes, that’s your old single self that needs to grieve. And it’s okay to feel jealous and want a different life.'”
“How’s that response working?”
At this point we pause and I remind my clients that she’s already grieved the single life plenty of times. If this was the first time I was speaking with her I would say, yes, do your grief work, write the letters to your single self and ritualize them in some way (burn, rip, dissolve), but this client has gone down that road a hundred times. Now it’s time to go deeper, which means she doesn’t need to meet the thought on the level of thoughts. As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” This means that, after we splash the thought with cooling cognitive truth, the problems of our thoughts taking over can’t be met with more thoughts. We must go deeper.
So with this client I guided her through the steps of breaking free from intrusive thoughts:
“The first step is to name that thought as intrusive. Once you name it, you’ve created a space between you and the thought. You need to say something like, ‘This is my escape hatch fantasy. It’s not my truth even though it feels like my truth in this moment. I am addicted to this escape fantasy because I don’t want to feel the messiness of being human.’ And remind yourself over and over again that we can’t escape the messiness of being human.”
“What am I trying to escape?” my clients asks.
“Your feelings. Not the feelings that are attached to your intrusive thought and which you project onto your husband but your core, fundamental feelings of being human: loneliness, boredom, emptiness.”
“So all of the mental torture is because I don’t want to let myself feel that one moment of boredom?” she asks with more than a little skepticism in her voice.
“Amazingly, yes. It’s harder than we think to let ourselves feel that moment of boredom or emptiness without wanting to escape. When we really let ourselves feel it, it’s a death moment. It doesn’t last, of course, and the more we practice breathing into our painful moments, the easier it becomes. But we really have to train ourselves to do that because it’s human habit and cultural conditioning to run from those moments. And there are a million ways to run these days. So the question really is, ‘Am I willing to experience the messiness of being human?'”
It’s not easy to name the thoughts or to feel the feelings. In fact, I would say, especially when we’re trapped on the hamster wheel of addictive/intrusive thoughts, it’s one of the hardest tasks we can face. Addictions of all kinds are difficult to break, and addictions of the mind are particularly challenging because, unlike drugs or alcohol, we can’t simply remove thoughts from the kitchen cabinet and begin the work from there (not that there’s anything easy about recovering from an alcohol or drug addiction). This is why I often refer to people who commit to this work as warriors. It’s a match between love and fear on the battleground of your mind and the field of your heart. It will require all of you, and more.
And it begins with that one critical, transformative moment, the space between the stimulus (your trigger/intrusive thought/anxious feeling) and your response, as it’s your response that makes all the difference. This is why some kind of practice that turns our attention inward and helps us slow down our thoughts – mindfulness, meditation, yoga, breathing, journaling – is so crucial, and why I teach those practices in nearly all of my courses. We can’t expect to change our mental habits unless we’re working daily with our minds in some way. We can’t change what we can’t see, and the only way to see how our minds work is to spend time in self-reflection. The answers aren’t in seeking reassurance from your mother. They’re not in Dr. Google. And they’re not in a Netflix binge. Changing our mental habits is a mental discipline that requires as much dedication and perseverance as changing our physical habits. In other words, just as we’re not going to develop strong muscles by sitting on the couch so we’re not going to discipline our minds by seeking outside reassurance or scrolling through screens. If you want to break free, you have to devote real time and energy to the practices that will facilitate your ability to first notice that essential space between stimulus and response, then act on your power to respond differently.