The Space Between Stimulus And Response

March 4, 2024 by

By John Schorling

While driving recently, I was wondering what to write for this month’s Musing when I came to a stop sign.  Seeing the red sign with STOP written on it brought my attention back to the present moment.  “Aha!” I then thought – I’ll write about STOP, an acronym that reminds us to pause to practice mindfulness in the moment.

The importance of pausing is well described in the quote below often attributed to Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, although I have been unable to find a reference to him actually saying it.  Instead, according to the Viktor Frankl Institute, “The true origin of the quotation is somewhat involved. To put it shortly, the author Stephen R. Covey used to recount that he found the quote in a library book and thought it fitting to describe Frankl’s views – but he did not note down the book’s author and title.”  Whatever the origin, this is still a very powerful statement: “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.”  Pausing allows us to pay attention to our present moment experience, and in pausing gives us the space to choose our response, rather than just reacting to our circumstances.

Practicing STOP provides a framework for doing this.  The S stands for Stopping what we are doing and pausing for a moment.  The T stands for Taking a deep breath to calm and center ourselves.  For some people, taking a deep breath in a stressful situation is not calming, and if that’s the case focusing on other sensations, like in the hands or feet, might be more centering.  The O stands for Observing our present moment experience.  This can include noticing what we are thinking (“this is absurd”) and what we are feeling (“anger and my face getting red”).  We can also assess what our goal is in the present situation.  Doing this can be very helpful in choosing our response.

If we are in a situation and feel anger arising, perhaps in dealing with a customer service representative who does not seem very helpful, we might react out of this anger and say something that will result in them being even less helpful.  If instead, we pause long enough to notice the anger and recognize that our goal is to get the help we need, we might choose a different response.  The P then stands for Proceeding with awareness.  Once we are aware of our goal, we can choose an action that will hopefully facilitate achieving it.   This process is often referred to as one of moving from reacting to responding.

So when we become aware that we are in a stressful situation, we can see if it’s possible to practice STOP, perhaps by remembering a red stop sign (or seeing one as I did).  Whenever we do pause to decide what to do, if we choose wisely, we may find that “in our response lies our growth and our freedom”.


Filed Under: Monthly Musings