Is there a gap between you and your response?

by Paul Goodchild on September 6, 2010

How wide is the gap between you and your responses?

A straight forward enough question, right?  How wide is the space between events in your life, and how your respond to them?

I like to think mine is wide and gets ever wider.

If you’ve read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and recall the 1st habit, you’ll understand this concept immediately.

This space, or lack of it, impacts your whole life for good or for ill.

Word count: ~1700;  Time to read: ~10 minutes;  Photo credit: here.

To get this party started, it might be a good idea to listen to what Bill Hicks says about beliefs…


What’s a stimulus?

In this context, it’s anything external that acts on your life.  It is an event that takes place in your environment that may or may not cause a response from you – action or inaction.  Your response can be emotionally positive or negative and thereby lead to a specific action that you deem to be appropriate.

Some examples of stimuli in our lives…

  • someone betrays your trust in them.
  • someone gets a promotion in work when you feel more deserving of it
  • someone gives you a gift
  • someone attacks you physically
  • someone tells you that they love you
  • it rains on your wedding day
  • the train is late and you miss an appointment
  • you get the day off work
  • you have to work overtime
  • … anything

I watched Kung Fu Panda last night, and was reminded by the very wise Oogway that:

…There is just news. There is no good or bad.

It’s easier to witness this space when something negative happens to you, so most of the examples given above are “negative” ones, but we react just as much to “positive” events as “negative” so they’re included here.

So it’s simple, a stimulus is simply an event in your life that you evaluate and then formulate a reaction to.  You may decide not to act on it, but then essentially that too is a reaction.

How we typically react to stimuli

Let’s take an example… if I tell you I don’t like your new hairstyle, you are likely going to have an emotional response.  Let’s say that you like your hair, you think it’s nice and are very satisfied with paying $100 on it.  Depending on our relationship, you will weigh my contrasting opinion differently.  If we are not known to each other at all, you’ll likely brush off the comment with a mental note that I’m a bit of prick.  You might even decide to tell me so.  Alternatively if we’re quite close, you may be hurt – if anything, you had hoped your friends would tell you how wonderful you look.  You may not take time to think much about what I’ve said and lash out telling me how crooked you think my nose is, or how one of my ears sits slightly higher on my head than the other.  Whatever.  You react probably without thinking about how you react.

You may even decide that our friendship is worthless and that it should be ended henceforth.  Alternatively, you might decide that our friendship isn’t based on the subjective evaluations we make of the other person’s hairstyle and that while you would prefer your friends to like your hair, it isn’t critical or even remotely important in the foundation of your relationship.

My point?  There are as many ways you could respond to this stimulus as there are variations of hairstyles you could have had done to yourself.

Q. How do we formulate our response?

A. We evaluate it against a set of rules.

Q.  What are these rules we use to evaluate?

A.  They are the collection of values and beliefs we hold – our values-framework

Q.  Where do our values comes from?

A.  From our experiences, and through witnessing the experiences of other people that either we hold in high esteem or who hold values that we believe have high correlation with our own.  I.e. Monkey-see-monkey-do.  It is how we learn, grow, and develop.  We follow (mirror?) people in positions of influence in our lives.

We live out our existence by continually judging, evaluating events within the framework of our values/beliefs.  When we witness a stimuli-response scenario experienced by someone whom we model ourselves on (for whatever reason), we typically adopt the very same value and integrate it into our framework.  Since we are, each of us, both subject to, and witnesses to, an almost infinitely varied series of events and reactions to them, we all have our own unique values-framework.

There are of course other variables in this equation, such as the genetic-influence (nature vs. nurture), reinforcement, and positive/negative feedback and payloads.

How does this response-gap influence your responses?

One of my ex-girlfriends said something very interesting to me one day and it has stuck in my brain ever since.  It continually serves to contrast the difference between those with a significant stimulus-response gap, and those without it.  She said (and I’m paraphrasing):

You act like a robot … you don’t consider the feelings of others when you act like you do.

She was referring more to my emotional “roboticness” – that is, my apparent lack of them.  On the contrary, I responded – if I’m living my life without a conscious space between stimulus and response within which I can choose my reaction based on several options, then that is robotic.  Simply operating, without question, within the social rules that have been passed down to me, may seem inconsiderate at times to people, but it’s far from robotic. Robots are computers at heart and simply operate on a series of programmed rules (if … then … ).  Without that space between stimulus and your reaction to it, I am unconsciously following a set of rules laid down throughout my life.  I would have no conscious idea what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Horrible.  I can’t think of a worse position to be.

Becoming conscious of the space that exists between stimulus and response gives you the power to optionally step in and re-evaluate your existing values-frameworks.  If you thought that there was a problem with your values, you probably wouldn’t still hold them, but if you weren’t even conscious of holding destructive beliefs, then you could never adapt your life to new situations that contradict your current world view.

How to widen the response-gap

If all this is news to you, the idea that there’s a space in there, and you are prepared to accept it, then you’re in for a radical paradigm shift.  Your view of the world is about to change and you’ll hardly be able to remember life without the space.  At least, I can’t remember.

If there’s no space there, you can’t widen it.  First you must accept responsibility for your life and the choices you make within it.  You can blame all your problems on a 1001 possible factors that you think lie outside of your control, but until you step up and accept that you are completely responsible for everything that is within your power to control or influence, then you are living in denial of your own autonomy.  If you cannot accept the existence of the space, your responsibility, then you can expect to continue your robotic emotional fluctuations that are dependent on your programming.  You are not happy when you want to be, but rather when you’ve been trained to be.  You’re not upset, angry, distressed, when you choose to be, but rather because you’ve been programmed a certain way.  You will be inflexible and non-adaptive.  You will accept only ideas and opinions that you’ve previously been exposed to and new developments that contradict your current framework will appear threatening.

Good luck with that.  That’s a stressful place to be.

Alternatively you can recognise that you are simply a collection of beliefs that have either been explicitly (“Do this…”, “Don’t do that…”) or implicitly (through observation and mirroring) handed down to you.  You have the power to question the legitimacy of what you believe!  Are your parents’ values relevant?  Are your boss’ and colleagues’ rules fair and legitimate?  Do all the rules of society really have your best interests at heart?  Is the ‘news’ that you both read and watch representative and can you truly form legitimate beliefs/opinions on it?

The best way to widen the gap between stimulus and response is to use it.

Questions are the key to freedom

If you stop questioning, you are doomed.  It’s okay to question and come back with the same answer as before; no harm done.  But what if your answering leads to an alternative world view?  Can you accept it and integrate it into your values-framework?

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do I have to take this crap from my boss?
  • Does my partner have the right to control me in exchange security?
  • Is my secure job really secure?  Is there such as thing as a secure job?
  • Why do we have to work 9-5 hours, 5 days a week?  Is that optimal, or do we just do it because we’ve “always” done it?
  • Must I find a partner so we can get married, buy a house, and then have children (though not necessarily in that order)?
  • Can’t I be single, and happy?
  • Is that new pair of shoes/iPod/car/mortgage really necessary?
  • Is a relationship without 100% trust really sustainable?
  • Is studying hard in school, obtaining a university degree, and then getting a job really a success?
  • If my friends and family disagree with my decision, does that make it a bad decision?

The list could go on, but I hope you get the idea…

Don’t be afraid to push open the stimuli-response-gap and become more accepting of things that would normally send your head into a spin!

Comments and feedback are very welcome in  the section below.  If you found this article remotely interesting or informative, please do share it.  You can share it on Facebook using the links below and at the top of the page.

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