We’ll start today with a quote from Tara Brach and her book, Radical Acceptance.

Brach writes:

It is believed that in the midst of a bullfight, a bull can find his own area of safety in the arena. There he can reclaim his strength and power. This place and inner state are called his querencia.

As long as the bull remains enraged and reactive, the matador is in charge. Yet when the bull finds querencia, he gathers his strength and loses his fear.

From the matador’s perspective, at this point, the bull is truly dangerous, for he has tapped into his power.[1]

In today’s podcast, we’re going to talk about how to stop reacting in ways that don’t serve us and find our own querencia through a practice of micro-pauses.

Now, granted, when it feels like every minute counts and we have no time to spare, it can be really hard to stop and find our power. Dominant culture insists that we produce constantly and our schedules overflow with obligations to community, work, children, parents, friends, and everyone else, so it’s hard not to feel like a bull in a ring with life coming at us sometimes. The notion of integrating pauses into our days might sound like something only New Age self-help gurus have time for.

But when we don’t pause to assess what’s really needed, our habitual reactions can bring us down paths we later regret.

To step outside of overwhelm, discern what we really need, and consciously respond in ways that serve us and the people we care about, we must pause.

The pause is the moment of choice.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes:

Between the stimulus and the response is a space, and in that space lies our power and our freedom.[2]

The pause is the space between the stimulus and our response. The pause is the place where we choose our next step.

Now, I’m not talking about going on a retreat or meditating for hours. I’m talking about the briefest of pauses. Even a few seconds can make a huge difference.

One reason why pausing can be so powerful is that when we pause, we interrupt our activation cascades. Activation cascades are sequences of physiological reactions—sensations, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors—which unfold as if on autopilot in response to cues that our nervous systems detect as threats or opportunities to meet our needs.

For example, let’s say that you receive an email from a colleague sending critical feedback.

Here’s what your activation cascade might look like in reaction to the email:

  1. You detect the cue, often below your conscious awareness. In this case, the cue is the email.
  2. You feel sensations in your body. When you read the email, you might feel tension, constriction, clenching, heat, restlessness, agitation, irritation, or other uncomfortable sensations.
    You might also feel an urge to reply immediately or slam your computer closed or text a friend. Habits often feel like urges to dissipate built-up energy, like feeling compelled to do something or having an itch that wants scratching.
  3. You feel emotions. Perhaps reading the email brings up emotions like anxiety, nervousness, overwhelm, frustration, confusion, dismay, embarrassment, or guilt.
  4. You think thoughts. Maybe you think: “Everyone judges me.” “What if something terrible happens?” “My colleague is such a jerk.” “I can’t believe I did that.” “What do I do now?”
  5. You react with a habitual behavior. Maybe you fight—you send a litany of complaints back to your colleague without first thinking through a more strategic response. Maybe you flee—you ignore the email and pretend like you never received it. Maybe you freeze—you feel like a deer in headlights or like the wheels in your head stop turning. Or perhaps you fawn and immediately apologize to your colleague without first reflecting on how much of their critique is actually your responsibility.

When we’re unaware that we’re experiencing an activation cascade, we’re likely to react with habitual behaviors that don’t serve us well, and we may not be able to explain why we’re reacting that way. It can feel like our reactions are happening to us, as if we’re not in control of our response.

When we become activated and react habitually, we get caught up in what I call reaction loops—we feel habitual sensations and emotions, think habitual thoughts, and react with old habitual behaviors. The prefix re- means again, and so to react means to act again and revert to old, habitual responses.

In contrast, when we notice that we’re activated and pause, we create an opportunity to pivot into what I call a choice loop.

A choice loop works like this:

  1. We notice the same cue, often unconsciously.
  2. The activation cascade begins within us just like before, and we feel sensations that tell us an old habit has been activated.
  3. At some point during the activation cascade, we notice that the cascade has started and as soon as we notice, we pause. Perhaps we pause right after we feel the sensations or when we notice our old thought patterns or when we catch ourselves reverting to old behaviors.

By noticing and pausing, we interrupt the activation cascade and create a space between the stimulus and response.

  1. We get curious about what is needed. Sometimes the situation demands an immediate response, so we have to think on our feet and can only pause for a few seconds. Other times, we can take a longer break to reflect.
  2. We consciously choose our next step. Based on the information we’ve gathered, we do our best to choose a next step that we believe will move us toward meeting our needs and the needs of the whole. For example, after reading your colleague’s email, you might go for a quick walk, call a supportive friend, or journal about how you might effectively respond to the feedback. Then, you take your next step.

Here’s a list of differences between what happens in a reaction loop and a choice loop. See if you can locate yourself in either column. You’ll probably see yourself in both.

Reaction Loop Choice Loop
You constantly go, go, go without taking time to pause or reflect. You pause throughout your day to reflect on what you need and what your people need.
When a challenge arises, you react without thinking. When a challenge arises, you pause and discern what’s really needed.
You ruminate about what might happen, what already happened, or what could have happened. You have a hard time getting out of your head. You become curious about what you might learn from a situation. Each baby step brings more information, clarity about what’s next, self-trust, and agency.
You react to the present moment as if it was full of threats from the past. Trauma calls the shots. You make choices based on your current needs while still informed by an understanding of past trauma.
You don’t know what you feel or need. You pay attention to what you feel and need.
You are unaware of what others feel or need. You listen carefully to what others feel and need.
When you feel anxious, angry, sad, or uncomfortable, you try to get rid of your challenging emotions. When you feel uncomfortable emotions, you turn your attention toward your uncomfortable feelings with love and kindness and listen to what they want to say.
When you’re having a hard time, you unconsciously react with coping strategies that may not serve you. When you’re having a hard time, you notice your habitual reactions and get curious about what’s happening within you. Then, you face your challenge, discern what you need and what the situation needs, and take your next step forward with that information.
When you don’t know what to do next, the gears in your mind stop moving, and you tell yourself there’s something wrong with you, ask others to figure things out for you, or abandon the challenge. When you don’t know what to do next, you pause and become curious about what is needed. Then, after gathering enough information, you courageously take your next step.
You try to ignore, contort, or eliminate parts of you that resist change. You turn toward the parts of yourself that resist or avoid change and listen closely to their needs. Then, you take a step you believe has the potential to meet your needs.
You ruminate in regret. If you realize you made a mistake, you do your best to repair and make amends.
You don’t choose steps to meet your needs, desires, or longings. You do your best to move in the direction of your needs/desires/longings, step by baby step.
You resent others for not meeting your needs or rising to your expectations. You examine your expectations, discern your needs, and make skillful requests.
You contribute to a workplace culture of constant phone-looking, distractions, and impatience. You model a different way of working for your colleagues and help foster a culture of deep thinking, respect, celebration, and genuine connection.
When interruptions pop up, you become distracted, say yes to things you don’t want to do, or stop focusing on the things you do want to focus on. As a result, you don’t have time to accomplish what matters most. You feel confused about whether you should have answered those emails or not. You don’t trust your own decisions, and you feel overwhelmed. When interruptions pop up, you quickly pause, check in with what’s needed, and decide where to invest your attention.
You feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and burned out. You set boundaries that help you meet your needs while showing up in ways that make you proud.

Although many people worry that pausing will take precious time away from all their other important tasks, no client has ever told me that pausing detracted from getting important things done. Instead, they’re often surprised that micro-pausing helps them expend less energy and feel like they have more time.

Here’s what happened for my client, Angie: Angie came to me needing a fast transformation. She was in charge of managing the opening of her region’s first recreational marijuana dispensary, and she had to organize the purchase process for what was expected to be perhaps three thousand customers on opening day, oversee the construction staff, and onboard forty new employees at once. When she first came to me, Angie’s speaking pace mirrored the fast pace of her work, and as a result, her employees sometimes had a hard time understanding her.

We only had a month to work before the dispensary opened, and in our short time together, Angie needed to learn to slow down internally to contend with the external speed of her work. To help her slow down, I encouraged Angie to take a quick pause each time she needed to respond to an employee or make a decision.

She immediately started practicing, and months later, she wrote me this letter:

By the end of the month of practicing the pause, I knew in my bones that I was up for the challenge. During the media whirlwind of opening day (six different news outlets!), a few employees even asked me how I remained so calm and in control.

I am a different leader than I used to be. I learned how to pause, slow way down even in the midst of rapid change, and stop second-guessing myself. Many months later, I am excited to say that I am a person who pauses still.

Now, here’s an important caveat: When my clients start learning about pausing, they sometimes think they shouldn’t react at all when they feel activated. Taken to the extreme, an aversion to reacting can result in tone-policing or not intervening when we witness harm.

So let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting we should wait until we’re perfectly calm to respond to injustice or insult.

Anger is a protective sensation. Sometimes, when we feel the urge to protect ourselves or others, the wisest thing to do is speak up immediately.

So please do not abandon your protective instincts or try to pause forever. Instead, the key here is to take a quick step back when you feel activated so that you can survey what’s happening within and around you and increase your chances of choosing a helpful response.

And, the more we deliberately integrate pauses into our days and practice pausing during the mundane, everyday moments, the easier it becomes to pause and consciously choose our response when things get heated.

So, with that in mind, I challenge you to start a practice of micro-pauses. These pauses can be as brief as ten seconds, or they can be longer, if you like. Just keep in mind that brief pauses consistently over time are far more potent than a longer pause every once in a while.

I recommend placing reminders like sticky notes that say “pause” where you’ll see them frequently, such as above your sink, by your computer, on your car dashboard, or next to your bed. Some clients have had fun wearing bracelets that remind them to pause.

Pause now and ask yourself what might help you remember to pause. Then, if you so choose, set up the reminders now.

[1] Tara Brach. Radical Acceptance. (New York, NY: Random House, 2004.)

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006.)

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