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Don't Just React: Choose Your Response

Create the inner "space" to be the person you want to be.

“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.” –Victor Frankl

I have great respect for Victor Frankl. He was not only a concentration camp survivor during the Holocaust, but also someone who went on to help others find goodness and meaning in life. He was a man from whom we can learn something about what it means to be human and how to be our best—sometimes in spite of our inclinations. And the above quote is incredibly wise guidance in these very areas.

In it, he implies that people often react without thinking. We frequently don’t choose our behaviors so much as just act them out. But he observes that we don’t need to accept such reflexive reactions. Instead, we can learn to notice that there is a “space” before we react. He suggests that we can grow and change and be different if we can learn to recognize, increase, and make use of this ‘space.’ With such awareness, we can find freedom from the dictates of both external and internal pressures. And with that, we can find inner happiness.

Victor Frankl was clearly an extraordinary man. Most of us can only wish for his moral strength, insight, and wisdom. But we can follow his lead by looking for the "space" in our own lives. When faced with situations that pull for some particular reaction, we can choose to respond instead. Frankl found his ‘space’ through finding meaning. Others find it through prayer, meditation, or therapy.

If you struggle with certain aspects of yourself, consider finding your ‘space’ to respond, rather than reflexively react, by doing the following:

Consider the person you would like to be: Think about the person you would like to be, especially in the areas in which you struggle. For instance, you might not like your tendency to become quickly frustrated in difficult situations, wanting instead to be a patient person. Take the time to develop a clear vision of this more ideal version of yourself.

Think about the meaning or origin of your reactions: There is a reason that you react as you do. It can be very helpful to understand your reactions, and perhaps even their origins. For instance, you might be impatient because you imagine failing to fix problems, and so you experience great anxiety. You might also realize that your parents tended to be critical, leaving you to believe that you always fall short.

Observe the outcome of your reactions: Pay close attention to the results of your reactions. By bringing negative consequences to your awareness, you will be more motivated to change your reaction to a desired response. With our example, you might note how your impatience makes it impossible for you to effectively solve problems.

Imagine a better response: Think about better ways to respond. Imagine doing them and the consequences of this. Also imagine what it would feel like to respond more in keeping with what you want for yourself. Continuing the example of a problem with impatience, you might envision yourself responding calmly to a problem and then moving on to find your way to an effective solution.

Learn a more compassionate approach to yourself: Because personal change takes effort and time to accomplish, it is important to support this process within yourself. Being critical will only undermine your efforts. So, instead, practice being understanding and patient with yourself—much as you would be supportive of a child or good friend who is working to develop a new skill.

You very well may need to learn particular skills in making some changes. For instance, you might want to learn skills in assertiveness, anger management, being more social, or relaxation. Psychotherapy can also help you to relieve anxiety or depression, as well as address any other personal struggle. Whatever your situation calls for, you will find creating ‘space’ is an incredibly powerful part of becoming the person you aspire to be.

Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.

Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

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