Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning writes about our freedom residing in the space between stimulus and response.
Your child hits you. Your freedom lies in the space of time between being hit, the stimulus, and your response to being hit. That moment contains your power to choose how you receive the message and your response. In your response lies personal growth and freedom. This space offers a small window of opportunity that enlarges with practice.
When we are sent negative messages, either verbally or nonverbally, we have four options on how we receive the message.
One, we can blame ourselves. Junior hit me because I’m too busy to take him to the park.
Two, we can blame others. Junior is out of control.
Three, we can sense our own feelings and needs. We might think: I understand that Junior is disappointed about not going to the park. But I need to fix dinner, and I don’t like to be hit.
Four, from the negative message, we can sense others’ feelings and needs. Junior is feeling angry because I can’t take him to the park right now to swing on his favorite swing. He wants to have my undivided attention.
Frankl also wrote that freedom must be lived in terms of responsibleness. Like two sides of the same coin, with freedom comes responsibility. We take responsibility for our choices by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values or thoughts, rather than blaming others for our feelings. When we can connect our feelings to our needs, others find is easier to respond with kindness and understanding.
A trap we can encounter in this space between stimulus and response is that we may try to change others’ behavior by using guilt and abdicating to others our responsibility for our own feelings.
Take for example this phrase: You make me mad. Here’s the reality: Nobody can make you mad, or happy for that matter. When you own your emotions, only you can choose to be mad or happy, or whatever other feeling you choose in that moment between stimulus and response.
We also begin to take responsibility for our feelings when we can distinguish between being motivated by guilt and wanting to give from the heart.
In our example of the hitting child, if we interpret the negative message of hitting as the child’s way of saying, ”Mommy, you make me so mad,” we could choose to receive this message with the first option, blaming ourselves.
Blaming ourselves can lead to guilty motivations instead of giving from the heart. Motivated by guilt, we might respond and say, Here sweetheart, have a piece of candy, or think, I’m a terrible parent, instead of trying to understand our own feelings and needs, much less trying to comprehend someone else’s feelings and needs.
If we choose to respond to the hitting using our fourth option, sensing others’ feelings and needs, we take responsibility for our own feelings and needs and act in a way that is not motivated by guilt.
To become aware of our abilities to respond, and to use the time between stimulus and response effectively, practice using the following phrase:
When you (action), I feel (emotion) because I (want or need).
Back to our hitting example: When you hit me, I feel upset because I want to get dinner ready and have more time to spend with you.
Remember, our freedom lies in the space between stimulus and response. We always have a choice.