Acting or reacting? A decisive difference!
Even the name of the e-mail sender causes your pulse to skyrocket. “That’s this choleric customer! Certainly another complaint! I’ll give him a piece of my mind!”
The project manager of the Task Force comes to you crumpled up and confesses that his project team has to postpone the deadline again. For the third time! “You can’t be serious about that! Then get behind the scenes and make sure it runs smoothly! Maybe I should think again about working with you in general!”
Stressed from an exhausting day you come home and see: the washing up is not done, the wardrobe is still not repaired. You haven’t quite got through the door yet, you’ve already jumped at your husband’s throat in your thoughts.
So many exclamation marks, so much anger. This list of examples can be continued almost endlessly. Have you ever noticed that in many situations, especially in emotionally charged ones, we are no longer able to act? We only react. To an impression, an experience, a trigger. Reaction instead of action – that makes a big difference. A certain stimulus is immediately followed by a pre-programmed reaction – there is no space in between for a conscious thought.
In this mode we run on autopilot. The most peaceful person can then drive uncontrollably out of his skin within seconds if someone gets on the wrong side of him. This automatic rage is not a decision, it is an unconscious reaction – and it is dangerous, for example when a driver is triggered by the behavior of another road user and “freaks out”. This is called road rage – often fatal for all involved.
The way out of the autopilot mode and its fatal stimulus-response chains? Awareness! It leads us from reaction to action.
Nobody can give you a feeling
The first step towards creating a space between stimulus and reaction is to recognize the stimulus and your reaction to it, to consciously perceive it. This sounds simple, but requires a lot of practice, because you have to learn to be really present in the current moment: What do you perceive on the outside, with which emotions, thoughts and evaluations do you react? Meditation is ideal for training this skill.
The next step is to accept the current reality (acceptance). This is anything but banal, especially if you do not agree with this reality. Then it is necessary to accept that as well – quite a challenge.
Only through awareness and acceptance can you reach the third step, inquiring into your emotions, thoughts and reactions to the external stimulus. You look deeper into yourself, so to speak. What happens in you, what exactly does this stimulus trigger in you, why do you react so strongly to certain external influences?
I can also tell you a secret directly: it is not the other person who triggers your anger – neither the ignorant partner, nor the incompetent employee, nor the idiotic driver in front of you. Nobody but you “makes” your anger. Even more, nobody can make you feel. It is always yours. Take a closer look, the true trigger of your anger is in you:
– The fear that your own work is not good enough.
– The need to be perceived and recognized as an authority.
– The feeling of being overtaxed and at the same time the inability to ask for help.
– The fear of being betrayed or abandoned.
– Or simply and banally: the quarrel with your best friend that has been smoldering subliminally in you for weeks.
Liberation: expand your repertoire
If you now know both – the outer stimulus and your reaction to it – better, then something amazing happens. Whereas before, stimulus and reaction were almost one, now a space opens up in between: “There is a space between stimulus and reaction. In this space lies our power to choose our reaction. In our reaction lies our development and our freedom”. This quote by Viktor Frankl sums it up.
With awareness, acceptance and exploration you come to the fourth step: the liberation (non-identification) from the regime of unconscious stimulus-response automatisms. Now you realize that you are not your thoughts and emotions. These arise in you, but you can decide how to deal with them.
Now you have power over your thoughts, emotions and patterns – not the other way around. You can consciously decide and freely choose how you act – be it with e-mails and deadlines at work, washing up at home or in traffic.