“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 Frankl
Life happens to all of us; it is fair in that sense, yet some of us do better than others in dealing with its challenges. Beyond faith, willpower, and determination lies the essence of Viktor Frankl’s famous quote mentioned above, as controlling our response to external stimulus, which basically means emotional regulation.
Many sources talk about self-awareness and how to make conscious decisions on every reaction to things that happen to us. Easier said than done? You bet. How many of us have tried to decipher what self-awareness means, and how can we control our reaction to the situations that matter? Not many, and even the ones who tried, guilty as charged, think of it as being present at the moment and instilling discipline and control over our reaction.
While self-control and discipline are essential, it is much more than that. Our reaction to a stimulus is not a result of a decision we make at the moment but due to preset wiring in our nervous system that conditions us to react the way we do. For the most part, those preset wirings were created in our brains while growing up, either by watching how our parents, or any caretakers we grew up with, reacted to similar situations, or by how we dealt with our issues and fears when we were kids, either directly or indirectly, from we learned growing up. Kids are like sponges, and almost all our adulthood issues, fears, and insecurities are a direct result of our wiring from childhood, how we reacted to emotional situations, or observed how adults dealt with such situations.
Hence, self-awareness in dealing with external stimuli means being aware of the preconditioned wiring and making a conscious effort to create a new wiring, which is the key to success. Once we realize the wiring pattern, we basically figure out the root cause, and therefore, we can put a plan in place to solve it. In short, to change where you are in life, you need to be ready to change the way you respond to external factors around you.
Let me give you an example; we all know someone who is a stressed driver and gets easily agitated by any car that passes them by, and they start cursing and shouting at them even if they were having a pleasant conversation with the person sitting next to them. They would impulsively react to the car cutting them off, start cursing, and then return to conversation. They might be a calm person in general, except for when driving, due to a preconditioned wiring on how to react to any car that cut them off. Maybe they learned it from their dads when they were a kid or from older friends who taught them how to drive.
To simplify it even further, when you press the light button in your room, the light bulb in the ceiling turns on. If you want to make that specific button turn on the light on the balcony, for example, the electrician needs to come over and rewire that button to affect the balcony and not your room. Got it? The same thing happens in our brains. It’s all about our nervous system wiring. We create those neuro-electric nods or connections in our brain, which set how we react impulsively to particular stimuli.
Knowing our own buttons, if we can call them that, or triggers, to be more specific, makes us aware of our wiring and thus work on the wiring we need to change. This skill requires an active and healthy brain and body and a strong appetite for learning new skills. Here are some tips:-
- Be physically active. A healthy body means a healthy mind.
- Keep an active mind.
- Play video games, puzzles, or board mental games.
- Learn a new language.
- Use new routes to the same destinations.
- Identify the top 2-3 preconditioned wiring habits you want to change.
- Write down the stimulus and response that takes place.
- Write down the ideal response that you want and start focusing for a whole month daily on applying that response, like a homework assignment.
- Maintain a positive can-do mindset with daily positive affirmations.
In the movie “Groundhog Day,” one of Bill Murray’s masterpieces, he played the role of Phil, a self-centered news anchor visiting a small town to cover Groundhog Day, only to find himself stuck on the same day, February 2nd, repeating itself every morning he wakes up. At first, that was very frustrating, and it drove him crazy. It took him a while to see that it was a blessing in disguise, and he used that opportunity to reinvent himself, learn new habits, drop the old bad ones, and become the most loved and admired person in town. As every single incident in his day was repeating itself like clockwork, he learned to anticipate them and started practicing different responses until he found the proper reaction to do or say in every situation and made it a habit. He also learned how to win Rita’s heart in the process.
I will leave you with a quote from the movie’s ending scene when Phil was creating an ice sculpture of Rita’s face. She was so mesmerized by the beauty of the ice sculpture that she was lost in words, not knowing what to say or how to respond, to which Phil replied, “I do. No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I am happy now because I love you.”