Updated: Mar 12, 2022
If you’ve been around any mindfulness, behaviour change or self-improvement content, most likely you will have heard of the terms ‘trigger’ and ‘response,’ in the context of being aware of the trigger so you have the possibility of having some control over your response.
Well the quote that much of the current thinking about behaviour change or making mindful decisions may have come from Viktor Frankl in his book entitled "Man's Search for Meaning" - the book details the neurologist and psychiatrist Frankl's experience of being Jewish in Nazi Germany and being subjected to concentration camps during World War 2.
“Between stimulus (trigger) 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.” - Viktor Frankl
Breaking down the quote:
A stimulus in psychology is defined as events in the enviornment which influence behaviour, or illicit some emotional or physiological response.
A response is the 'behavior that is manifested as a result of an external or internal stimulus', one step further would be the behavioral response - which is the 'change that takes place in an organism's behavior, actions, attitude, or demeanor as a result of being stimulated by a stimulus'.
Naturally, the space in between is the time it takes for the stimuli to ellicit the response. Physiological reactions such as an increased heart-rate or accelerated breating seemingly automatic, immediate and not in our control. The response of the personality, the mental and emotional responses are something that we do have control over - or do we?
But what of 'our growth' and 'our freedom?' Where is the growth within a space of time? And what are we to be free of?
For me, when beginning to notice the habitual reactivity to stimulus in my enivronment - i.e. when someone jokingly insults me, or a family member says something off - it felt like I was chained to my past - the memories, the conditioning, the hard-wired beliefs and attitudes abou myself, others and the environment. And when all of this stuff has power over me in the present moment - it led to the mindless reactivity to people and situations i.e. triggers. These things didn't have any bearing on me now, so I would get more annoyed at myself for reacting to it!
I found that meditation has the ability to cultivate the space in between stimulus and response. I remember at the beginning of my meditation practice, the difficulty in sitting with the things that would arise - challenging emotions, uncomfortable memories and sensations - being so attached to them, I’d either stop the practice or simply engage in a mental battle with it all. The automatic reactions - to get agitated, engage the thoughts, have feelings of regret or move the body - seemingly beyond my control.
The practice is to become aware of these things without needing to judge, evaluate or get intagled in them. This is difficult, but over time and practice, the more I became aware of these things, the more space was created between them and 'me' who was aware, or observing them, the less they had control over me. The space created in this awareness allowed me the choice - yes there are still automatic reactions and my mind gets carried away by some indulgent thoughts, but now there is also the opportunity to notice this and return back to my breathing. Just becoming aware that these things are arising from time to time, means the less I need to react - they come and go.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
This cultivation of the awareness of things that arise within me during meditation has permerated into my daily life. Meditation slowly began showing me what triggered me in daily life and brought forth automatic reactions. What made me react with anger - usually when I felt like I was being challenged or questioned for something I thought I shouldn’t be; what immediately caused an emotional response of insecurity - when someone didn’t reciprocate the same level care that I did towards them; what created feelings of fear - situations where I’d have to speak my truth.
In the face of triggers there is now a little more space to choose my response. There is more awareness of emotion arising in my body and negative thoughts in my mind - this awareness enable me to pause and in this new spaciousness, an opportunity to respond with a little more calmness and clarity. Where previously I'd automatically react with anger, now at least sometimes, there is a pause, a deep breath and mindful response...based on this moment now. And herein lies the power - the freedom to choose my response, rather than be prisoner to past conditioning, emotions and enviornment.
And the growth, well with each moment I respond with a little poise and grace, is a moment where I have grown from the person I used to be. This is behaviour change. It’s the practice that cultivates awareness of my inner and outer world, the practice which can widen the space been trigger and response and the practice which enables a deeper connection to myself and to life itself. Practice, practice, practice :)