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By A Thread: The Space Between Stimulus and Response

All week, I’ve been trying to think of a suitable title for this series. “Informal Mindfulness” sounded too cut and dry, too specific for my intentions with this series. It sounded so certain—unlike how I feel entering this series. I’m nervous because I’m learning all of this at the same time you are.

After a number of tries, I’ve settled on naming this “By a Thread”, because the focus of this series is not to completely let go of reality or of anxiety, or even of your daily worries, but to hang on to them at a distance, at arm’s length—as if by a thread. Mindfulness is not the practice of perfecting denial, but instead, of holding those anxieties and thoughts at arm’s length. “He was holding onto life by a thread,” we hear people say. We hear people say, “his mind was barely intact—hanging on to sanity by a thread.” Precipitous, it means—delicate, fragile. That’s where we want to be: vulnerable. 

The truth is, mindfulness and the practice of emotional objectivity is not as sterile, surgical, or even precise as we might come to believe. So many sources give a step-by-step walk-through to the light at the end of the tunnel, as if it were as easy as breathing out your anxieties and inhaling peace. As if the journey weren’t two steps forward, one step back. We’ve got to understand this before we even attempt to grow. Forgive yourself, but don’t stop trying.

I’ve decided to start every post in this series with a short poem, as I find that poetry helps to usher me into a more introspective state of mind. They will usually be haikus, but this first one is a little bit longer:

Like in a dream, what’s

impossible, like rock cut

by water, is real.  

Like a knife,

It cuts like silence,

It cuts through butter,

Cuts through my soul.

It’s love. A weapon. It flows. 

It will change, mold, refine

the lives it passes by. 

This week, I want to discuss emotional agility—in other words, as Sarah David phrased in question form, “what does it take internally to help us succeed externally, that is, to thrive at school/the workplace/the home and beyond?”

When is the last time you felt upset or offended? Perhaps you were in a group meeting and you felt like nobody was taking your ideas seriously. Maybe you were having a conversation with a friend and they saw someone they knew and beelined for them, leaving you coughing in the dust. It could even be that you feel some negative vibes directed at you from your professor or TA.

In all the above situations, the most natural reaction would be to think something along the lines of, “they don’t care about me, so I don’t care about them. If no one’s going to listen to what I have to say, then I might as well stop contributing.” And so you shut down, distance yourself, check out.

That go-to behavior is what Susan David calls ‘being hooked’.  

Being hooked

Being hooked is like following a linear progression: going from interpretation of the situation: A; to emotion: B; and finally to behavior: C. Your emotions directly control your behavior—and this, according to David, is what successful individuals have learned to avoid doing. Where emotional agility comes into the picture is between steps B and C. It is that “space between stimulus and reaction”—and there is a space.

When people find themselves in challenging situations, they tend to do one of two things:

  1. bottle up the emotions and say things like ‘I hate this job but at least I’ve got one.’
  2. Brood or ruminate; alone or with others.

Neither of these strategies are adaptive or effective, according to David. Neither of them actually do anything to improve the situation, and both of them degrade the person’s emotions.

Instead of allowing our emotions to control us, David says, we need to remember that no emotion is bigger than us—we are big enough to contain our emotions. Sound familiar? It sounds like head and heart dissonance, which is okay to have! Feelings are present to be felt and experienced. It is when these intangible feelings and emotions take control of our very tangible and physical behaviors that we should be wary. Up until now, I’m sure you know that I am referring mainly to negative emotions.

To find out more about emotional agility, I encourage you to check out Susan David’s book ‘Emotional Agility’, where she discusses in more detail what it means to ‘be hooked’, to be able to ‘helicopter’ over your immediate emotional experiences, and to eventually learn how to put what she calls ‘helicoptering’ and objectivity into practice.

On my next post on the 24th, Monday, I’ll be talking about how it is not a bad thing to have these negative feelings—in fact, it is important that we feel anger, sadness, disappointment. We as a society need to stop putting on the happy-face façade, and realize that constant positivity and optimism (or even the appearance of maintaining them) is actually detrimental to mental health.


Information obtained from: 


Images are author’s own.

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