Note: this post is a bit longer than usual and an excerpt from a book I wrote and never published. Let me know what you think.
‘Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Have you heard of “Newton’s Cradle?” You may not know it by name but I’m certain you’ve seen one in action on someone’s office desk. It’s made with five metal balls in a row, suspended from individual strings. When you pull out one of the balls from the end and release it, the ball swings back into the other four balls, and — like magic — the ball on the opposite end swings away from the other four, like a pendulum. Then, the opposite reaction: the ball returns back and crashes into the dormant balls and the original ball bounces back out. The metal balls bounce back and forth with that predictable sound.
Click-clack-click-clack, back and forth, until eventually, all five balls come to a standstill.
This is a triggered event, and looks an awful lot like many humans do, during a time when an external force hits us: our response is instantaneous and opposite. Like these balls, we often don’t see or know what caused us to react, but simply succumb to the innate forces of nature.
How often do you feel like these little balls, triggered by unseen forces? The truth is, many of us are driven to react like bouncing balls, back and forth, seemingly with little or no control over our actions. This is typical of an over-reaction, and I know I have been guilty of these. Many times, I’ve had to go back to someone with an apology.
When we react, we launch into a mode of reflex, zero-thought, all-or-nothing, aggressive or depressive way of engaging. This usually triggers the other party to do the same, and as a result there’s little difference between us and that Newton’s Cradle: hard-surfaced metal balls causing each other to orbit out for refuel and back, for another, usually harmful, impact.
Imagine inviting wisdom into the moment of your triggered state. The kind of wisdom you typically only have in hindsight. You know that moment? It usually comes sometime after feelings are hurt and you’ve walked away. When you calm down, or talk to a friend, you eventually realize that you acted rashly and emotionally.
“I wish I would’ve …”
“I should have just kept my mouth shut…”
“I don’t know why I sent that email so soon…”
How to Shift from Reacting to Responding
What I’d like to propose is that you can invite that “future wisdom” right now. The tools I’m going to share with you here will make you more like a broken Newton’s Cradle: when that other party “smashes” into you, expecting your flare-up in return, you can calmly …do nothing. It’s a lot like throwing a cushion between the balls, just before they collide. With this you can transform your relationships, both at work and in the home. You’ll increase your ability to negotiate and stay serene — in even the most heated situations.
By learning to “put yourself on pause,” you create the space you need to draw upon your own wisdom and make better choices all around.
The foundation of what I’m sharing with you here lies in what makes us uniquely human: choice. Our freedom to choose. The very word “response” implies a moment of thought has been taken, whereas a reflex is, by its very nature, unthinking, without mental cognition. Reflexes are hard-wired into the medulla oblongata, which is located near the brainstem, a feature we share with species of the animal kingdom. I liken our triggered reaction, or reflex, to part of our “monkey brain” or “reptilian brain.” This signifies an animal instinct and was specifically wired as a “fight, freeze, faint or flight” mechanism. When you are in great danger, your reptilian brain, aka medulla oblongata (or MO, if you like) “takes over” and does what’s necessary to survive the moment. You fight, do nothing (freeze), completely blank out and perhaps pass out (faint) or hit the road (flight). The reason animals faint or act dead is that most predators won’t be interested in dead animals and thus have no desire to eat it. Fainting, acting dead, has become a behavior that evolution must have favored. You may not faint on the spot as an individual, but perhaps you act dead in the sense that you’re mute, offer no reaction or response, no sign of life on the matter at hand. Being an overall agreeable person, I now look back at times where I went mute to avoid conflict looking to appear agreeable when deep inside I actually was far from OK.
These “reptilian brain” reactions are exceedingly useful when our lives are actually in danger…
Indeed, back when we were members of a tribe, this component might be more useful than it is today, given the modern protections we now enjoy.
Of course, we can still find ourselves in grave danger in our modern world. The occasional “green lights” flashing in our reptilian brain to go ahead and Fight! Defend! … Oh, wait. We just did it again. We weren’t really in danger, but now we’ve done something that offended a co-worker, friend or relative. Every time we succumb to this first line of defense, we become more and more wary of our Selves and how we might jeopardize our relationships. Now the rational part of our brain, the frontal lobes is battling with the reptilian brain…
The end result is that the two parts of our brains are fighting, feeding each other ammunition in the form of justification and rationalization for thinking and feeling the way we do. It’s all-out combat.
Back and forth the metal balls go. Click-clack-click-clack-click-clack…
What would happen if you inserted that cushion I mentioned earlier between any of those metal balls? You got it. Nothing. The back and forth stops immediately. Does your brain have a cushion? Of course it does.
Your “cushion” is made up of three things: Choice. Question. Space.
When you’re triggered and are about to react, stop. Choose not who you are in that moment (a triggered individual with flaws and insecurities) but choose instead who you want to be. Various teachers over time have instilled this lesson deeply in me: “At times it can feel like an impossible gymnastic feat, yet we must cultivate our ideal, higher self, just as we would a delicate plant in our garden.”
Improving, One Second at a Time
Even if you eventually react, it’s OK. Stretch the time between the impulse, and the reaction. Pull it apart. Expand it, a little. Turn it from one second, to two seconds, then four. Stretching the space before your reaction will strengthen your will, and create the ability in you to respond, rather than react.
Taking responsibility for your experience literally means you can respond instead of reacting. Consider the word: responsibility. It contains two key words = ability (to) respond. This ability is one of the central attributes I hope to teach my daughters as one of the primary core life skills.
Growing anything of beauty takes time and effort. Feeding and cultivating our higher self is not always easy. However, as you practice awareness and create intention around what your best version of “you” looks like, you can begin to manage moments of triggered temptation. I use “temptation” here, since anger and aggression can feel temptingly appropriate when our reptilian brain fires off an impulse. With practice, cues to act, your consciousness will step in and act as that cushion you need, giving you the moment to develop a response in place of the unthinking reflex.
Sounds Great! How do we Develop this Higher Self?
Ask yourself, “What kind of a person do I want to be and make it situation-specific. Now the question becomes, what kind of a…
…do I want to be?”
Don’t gloss over this part. Take the time, create the space you need and allow the answer to present itself to you. Whatever the answer is, take it in. Simply by giving this experience the necessary time, you’ll be able to formulate a new belief that enables you the response you desire.
Thanks to Martin Seligman’s great work on learned optimism, I’ve adapted his ABC method here for your benefit.
A – Activating event. B-Belief. C– Conclusion.
If you look at this, you see that the “B” Belief precedes your conclusion, or the outcome. The preconceived notion you have in your head is what’s causing the outcome. The “B” belief is what needs altering.
Your main exercise for this segment is to remember the freedom to choose is uniquely human and as such, directly falls on you to choose wisely using the model I just described. Easy enough right? Not at all! It takes practice and time. Ask anyone that’s married with kids and/or parents of teenagers.
The following three tools will help you tune in to what’s happening in any given moment.
- Buy yourself a “Newton’s Cradle” and place it somewhere you will notice it throughout the day. Let it symbolize your ability to choose, in every circumstance, how to react. Every time you see it, recall this lesson and let yourself be reminded that you have a choice. You can choose how you want to be in each moment, not what your animal instinct would have you become.
- Take a piece of paper the size of a business card and write the following: “Respond. Don’t React” below it, write “Know Your ABC’s.”
- Time travel to reap some wisdom. Go back to five different situations where you were triggered and reacted. For each moment, write down the “ABC”s as follows:
- A – Activating Event: What happened? Who said/did what that made you jump into a reflex-like reaction mode?
- C – Conclusion: Based on your reaction, how would you describe the conclusion you drew from this event?
- B – Belief: What belief must you have had to produce such an outcome?
Once you have done this for an event, look back and ask yourself:
- What belief would have produced a better outcome?
- What person do I wish I was in that moment?
- What would I have believed and how would I have responded?
The results you get from this single exercise will grant you greater awareness and thereby hopefully help you transmute lead to gold, as it were. The wisdom contained within those moments will now present itself to you and be with you going forward.