The Space Between Stimulus and Response

stimulus and response
Dena Landon

By Dena Landon | Sep 6th, 2018

Chair pose is rarely anyone’s favorite pose in yoga. It’s the equivalent of a wall-sit in your high school gym class, only you’re leaning your upper body forward slightly and it’s not against a wall. In a recent class, thighs and glutes quivering, I prayed for the teacher to tell us to collapse into forward fold. Come on, it’s been at least twenty seconds, I thought, sweat dripping into my eyes.

He didn’t. Instead, he started talking.

“Listen to your body,” he said. “What is it telling you right now, in the space between stimulus and response? We have a choice how we’re going to respond to everything that’s happening around us. Breathe into that space.”

The stimulus, in this case, was holding the pose until I wanted to fall over. But it could just as easily have been an angry email, another unnecessary legal bill, or someone pushing you on the train into work.

A lot comes at us in life; job loss, a divorce we may or may not have wanted, losing friends and family. And if we don’t take the time to breathe between getting hit with the unexpected and responding the results can be disastrous.

An email dashed off in the heat of the moment that damages a work relationship. Unkind words that hurt a friend. Not feeling so great about yourself by the day’s end. At the beginning of my divorce I was proud every time I stood up for myself. If I yelled back, or raised my voice in return, it meant that I was no longer being a doormat. And reclaiming my voice has been an important part of my post-divorce journey.

But so, too, has been learning to moderate that voice. I’m not sure where the line is between growing strong enough to stand up for yourself and giving someone else your power. I think it might be when the response is instinctual and reactionary.

The stimulus is rarely something you can control. All you can do is choose how you’ll respond.

No one knows how to push your buttons like an ex. They know that yelling at you about money will trigger your worries about losing the house or paying bills. They know that cutting comments about your body will hurt. You can’t control how they’ll treat you during and after the divorce process, you can only control how you respond.

Learn to breathe before responding. Take a moment. The stimulus is rarely something you can control. All you can do is choose how you’ll respond.

There is a space there, between stimulus and response. That space isn’t just for you to choose your next action or words carefully. It’s also for you to look within.

Why are you responding angrily? What does it reveal about you? Have you been holding onto resentment or pain? Or do you still have pain that you need to work through? Something unacknowledged that you’d buried deep down?

It could relate to fear, if you’re arguing about money. Fear of the unknown. Fear of what your financial situation will look like post-divorce.

Why were you about to say something unkind to someone else? A comment about her clothes, or hairstyle. Is it because, deep down, you’re feeling insecure? I know that, whenever I’m getting judgmental, it’s because of my own insecurities.

Let that moment teach you.

And then let it go. If you’re responding without thought or reason, if you’re letting someone push you into being someone you don’t want to be, then you’re giving them your power. A simple test? How do you feel when you walk away? Empowered, centered and whole? Or kind of icky?

My teacher finally told us we could release. I took another breath before finally collapsing out of chair pose. That day I held the pose. Another day I might release it earlier. Just like some days you might utilize that breath between stimulus and response to make a wise choice, and other days you might not have that in you.

Accept where you’re at with grace and forgiveness. Practice breathing until what comes naturally is intention and kindness. When you choose how you respond, you’re in control. And it’s a good place to be.

Dena Landon

Dena Landon

Dena Landon's bylines have appeared in The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Salon and more. The proud mom of a boy, she specializes in parenting and divorce.


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