This is One of Our Most Powerful Tools for Inner Freedom

by | Oct 15, 2023 | Anxiety | 13 comments

It’s a familiar moment: I notice something that I would like to correct about someone close to me (husband, son). I feel the urge to say something; after all, if they could improve their lives in some way, shouldn’t I grace them with my infinite wisdom?

But, wait… a tiny part of my brain is reminding me that correcting someone never goes over well. Do I enjoy being corrected? Nope. I hate it. So, I zip my lip. I hold the urge, even when it feels like a small volcano about to erupt. The moment passes. Harmony prevails.

The practice of zipping my lip is not new. I wrote about it in my Open Your Heart course, which I first released in 2013, so one might think that I would have mastered it by now. But, as often happens, we remember and then we forget. Then we remember again, and each time we remember we are brought closer to the core of the spiral where, eventually, the unhelpful habit is transformed into something new.

Respond versus React

What does this practice hinge on? It hinges on my capacity to respond instead of react, which depends on my ability to pause. When I can pause, I can then ask, “How do I choose to respond to this urge to say something critical right now?” Without the pause, I’m a victim to my urges. The pause, so small, so subtle, is, in fact, one of our most powerful tools for inner freedom.

Where can we employ the power of the inner pause? With any of the following triggers:

  • intrusive thoughts
  • physical symptoms
  • when we are triggered by something someone says or doesn’t say
  • the urge to correct (also known as criticism :)).
  • shame stories
  • the urge to engage in compulsive behavior

Let’s take the example of physical symptoms. I feel a strange sensation in my heart. Health anxiety says: “I’m having a heart attack.” But if I can pause, I can then ask one of the most soothing question for the anxiety mind wired for health anxiety: “What else can it be?”

Or, an intrusive thought flies into your mind. Instead of latching on and falling into the default reaction of assuming that it’s true, you pause, which allows you to name the thought as intrusive and ask, “How do I choose to respond?”

The Power of the Pause

The power rests in the pause. When we can pause, we can choose. And our power to choose is our inner freedom.

Victor Frankl said it best: “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.”

When we fall into our default habits, we are in reaction.

When we can access the pause, we are in response.

Most of us spend a lot of time reacting and less time responding, which is why we feel like we’re a victim to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

In order to tip the balance in the direction of responding, we must learn how to access the pause.

How to Access the Pause

But how do we access the pause? As you probably well-know, the default reaction is often so powerful that it feels like to enters in a nanosecond.

Anything that helps create more inner spaciousness can give us greater access to the pause. When we’re jammed up inside, our thoughts, feelings, stories, and sensations tend to domino on top of each other, and it’s difficult to find a gap between the stimulus and the response.

But when we are more spacious inside, things tend to slow down. Everyone has their own recipe for spaciousness; for most people it includes some combination of attending to the four realms of Self in consistently, loving ways.

This is also where meditation comes in: when we practice noticing the urge to daydream, get up, scratch, or leave the meditation pillow and return our focus to the focal point of breath or mantra, we strengthen our capacity to access the pause. Meditation helps us to train our minds outside of the triggering moment so that we have more freedom when to respond instead of react when the trigger comes in hard and fast.

If I can do this, anyone can! Why? Because I’ve been a very reactive person in my life, especially in my marriage. Through a lot of meditation, spiritual practice, and following my body’s needs around food and movement, I have become more adept at pausing and responding instead of flying off on the fiery daggers of reactivity. I’m still working on this, and I imagine I always will, but I have worlds more space inside than I used to have.

The Five to One Ratio

PS: Returning to the scenario at the beginning of the post, let me also say that there is a time and place for “constructive criticism” or valid points that you would like to bring to a loved one’s attention. But the off-handed, impulsive comments that can pepper a day rarely land in the right way, and more often than not they feel like tiny snips that tear at the fabric of the other person’s positive sense of self.

The Gottmans talk about their famous 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments, and I think it’s a good equation to hold. However, I think even the one negative can hurt when it’s not delivered in a sensitive way. When it comes to relationships, I have found that when we have something important to say it’s better to wait for an intentional moment, cushion it with love, and communicate it with softness.

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13 Comments

  1. I’m wondering where the nuance is between not correcting and repressing your needs/not communicating your needs? I’m curious about that space.

    Reply
    • Yes it’s an interesting space to ponder. For me, it’s often about waiting until I’m not in reaction to bring something up – which means NOT in the moment that I’m feeling it.

      Reply
      • Dear Sheryl, what do you think about fear of fear ?
        My guess Is that It points to a fear of not living Life fully, which would be like living a thousand deaths.
        Would any of your courses help with this issue?

        Reply
        • Our Gathering Gold episode on Unlived Lives might be of interest to you.

          Reply
  2. “after all, if they could improve their lives in some way, shouldn’t I grace them with my infinite wisdom?”
    I love the irony and humor of that phrase.

    In my case (I don’t have children, so I’m talking about my close relationship among adults), my criticism in my close relationships have been so much about denying that the other’s way of doing things is just fine as mine. My way is just one among many. It’s a relief to let go the only single right way of doing anything (thank you, Sheryl, for your help!).
    Telling my loved ones how they could behave has also been about denying that they are grown ups, ready to face the small and big consequences of their small and big choices. It is very disempowering (for them) to keep telling other people how to do things.
    If I am most of the time trying to be the person who is best evaluating a situation and can choose the best thing to do, I feel that I have all the responsibility – which in a relationship is false, and exhausting over time.

    Thinking about romantic relationships/marriage, all of this gets much more complicated for heterosexual couples because we live in a sexist culture that hands over to the female all the responsibility for the household. So, we have naturalized the women overburden of analysing, choosing and doing and have also naturalized how the men hand over their share. So, it’s a huge work for couples to try to deconstruct this dynamic.

    Reply
    • There’s so much truth and wisdom in your words, Marie. Thank you.

      Reply
    • Wow Marie I loved this. There is so much Woodson hear I had to read it twice and save it. Beautifully said!

      Reply
  3. This arrived at the just the right time. The conflagration of world events is melding with huge transitions in my personal life, and after several years of relatively good mental health I am having to summon all my inner resources to guard against a relapse. The idea of the ‘pause’ is really helpful. thank you

    Reply
    • I’m so glad it arrived at the right time, Joshua. There is a LOT going on right now in both the outer and inner realms for a lot of people.

      Reply
  4. I love this article. I have been working on this for a quite a while but only recently started going all in. I mostly use this when my husband does something I have a strong reaction to, like if he has a attitude (which doesn’t happen often). I get so protective of myself and I want to react and tell him he’s being a baby but I hate how I feel when I’m in a reactive state. So I’ve been pausing, and breathing, and after the eruption of feeling passes, I can see much clearer and I am able to decide whether or not I even need to discuss what happened. I usually end up just asking “hey, are you ok?” because it’s not about me and he’s allowed to have a moment. I have attitudes all the time, and he always shows grace. This pause is teaching me a lot about trust, grace, love, and accountability. It opens my heart.

    Reply
    • Beautiful, B. I especially love this: “This pause is teaching me a lot about trust, grace, love, and accountability. It opens my heart.” I feel the same way.

      Reply
  5. This is a practice I have worked on for many years. I will share this post with my granddaughters who are struggling as they heal from a very toxic mother who always reacted and never responded. I am interested to find out where I can learn more about the four realms of Self?

    Reply

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