Between Stimulus and Response Lies Our Freedom

“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.” – Viktor E Frankl

Viktor Frankl is probably the most well-known survivor of the Holocaust. His experience in the concentration camps led to his best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning. If Frankl could choose his response to a stimulus as cruel as torture, we can surely choose our response to milder stimuli in life.

By learning to manage our stimulus and response, we can grow as a person and be truly free. How do we do this?

The space between stimulus and response

For most of us, the time lag between stimulus and response is tiny. When we receive criticism, we immediately feel defensive. When we hear gossip, we immediately want to know more. When the space between stimulus and response is so small, it’s hard to choose our response and we live as reactive beings.

How do we increase the space between stimulus and response? One way is meditation. Research shows that seasoned meditators show less activation in the trigger-happy amygdala, the part of the brain which controls our emotions. When subjected to the sound of screaming, their brains don’t respond as much as ours do.

In that space is our power

Power in our world is often measured by the size of territory owned. A king is powerful if his kingdom is large. An executive is powerful if his office is large. A leader is powerful if his influence is large. A writer is powerful if her audience is large.

We can therefore measure our personal power by the size of the territory between our stimulus and response. The larger that inner territory, the more powerful we are as conscious beings. Measured in this way, most people including me are not very powerful at all.

Power to choose our response

Space facilitates choice. The larger the road space between an oncoming car and my body, the more options I have. The larger the chessboard space between an attacking piece and my king, the more escape routes I have.

Similarly, the larger the mental space between our stimulus and response, the more options we have to choose our response. Instead of getting defensive the moment we are criticised, we can choose to:

(a) get defensive and try to prove the statement untrue,

(b) ignore the statement as not worth our energy,

(c) consider the possibility that the statement has some truth, or

(d) emphatise with the person making the statement.

Our growth and our freedom

In the above multiple choice example, most of us would not rationally choose (a) when we think about it calmly. Yet in the heat of the moment, we aren’t able to choose at all. We verbalise our defensive feelings before we attempt to control either the feelings or the words. Therefore, most of us are not really free.

Because we are not really free, we usually do not choose the option that leads to growth. For instance, (c) and (d) would lead to more growth than (a) or (b). Yet when I observe myself and others, (a) or (b) are the more common responses.

Taming my stimulus and response

When I was younger, I sometimes got involved in email wars. I’d type out an angry reply to a nasty email and send it out. Over the years I learnt to sit on the draft for a while, usually resulting in an edited and toned down final version. Over time, the draft got deleted and I didn’t reply to such emails anymore. In this way, I gradually increased the space between stimulus and response in my email life.

Emails are easier to deal with as it takes some time to type out a reply, hence the space between stimulus and response is naturally enforced. Verbal wars are harder since it takes much less time to vocalise an angry thought. Learning to bite my tongue is something I’m still working on.

Our ultimate freedom

It is good to choose not to act on a negative thought. It is even better to choose not to have that negative thought in the first place. In order to do this, the space between stimulus and response has to be really large. Large enough that there is time to consciously choose a positive thought, before the negative thought rushes at us.

Our ultimate freedom lies in our ability to choose our thoughts. Then we will be as free as Frankl, who chose to see meaning in life despite being surrounded by death. We will be as free as Nelson Mandela, who chose to forgive his wardens despite long years in prison.

How’s your stimulus and response?

How large is the space between your stimulus and response, and how do you enlarge that space? Prayer, meditation, and taking deep breaths work for me. If you know other ways, let me know here!

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