Tools for Tough Times: Mind the Gap

We are living and working in a world of uncertainties. Disruption, unending difficulties and having every hopeful question answered with a firm “no, not yet,” have been our fare for 20 months.  Most of us are conditioned to react automatically to the circumstances that occasion our emotional responses. Our sense of emotional equilibrium is usually based upon our circumstances generally meeting our expectations. If the circumstance meets our expectations, we are happy, peaceful, and/or content. If the circumstances fall short of our expectations, we often experience disappointment, anger, grief, or even despair.

As humans we easily focus on negative more than positive circumstances. Yet we can still have hope as an option even if the circumstances are routinely negative. We can even experience peace, encouragement, gratitude, and even joy.

On Choosing Your Emotions

Victor Frankl, who was imprisoned in and lost many family members in Nazi concentration camps, wrote about how we can live hopefully when the situations around us are routinely negative. He believed we can retain equilibrium and live positively even when the chips are down, day after day.

Fankl stated this: “In between stimulus and response is a space. In that space we can chose our response. And in choosing our response lies our freedom.”  We are self- programmed to choose most of our emotional reactions automatically, without thinking about them. Without thinking about it, we choose our reactions and then blame our circumstance (or the people in them) for our emotional reactions.

And while these reactions may seem to be the result of our circumstances, they are not out from under our conscious control. Instead of reacting automatically, we can choose a healthy response intentionally.

Frankl’s point is that we can choose to exercise control over our emotions, including our most disruptive ones. To do this, we must insert a conscious choice into the space between stimulus – whatever triggers negative emotions – and the response. To do this, we must identify that space (“the gap”) and intentionally choose a better response.

With practice we can recognize emotions welling up in us and “mind the gap”. If we feel hopelessness rising in us, we can stop that emotion and create the gap. In the gap we might begin thinking of things for which grateful, of hopeful things. If we are beginning to feel angry in the moment, we can stop that emotion and choose tolerance, prosocial concern, forgiveness, or simply walk away and walk it off.

Mind the Gap

We can choose to be hopeful, happy, at peace, forgiving, unoffended, and focused. It takes practice but doing so returns control in our lives to us. It restores our freedom. William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, once stated, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” After all, who wants to be controlled by circumstances or the choices of other people when we can exercise choice and gain freedom?

What to do: Think through in advance the emotions you want when negative emotions – anger, unforgiveness, offense, hopelessness, despair, wanting to quit, etc. – begin to well up in you. When in emotionally taxing situations, “mind the gap.”  Create the space to choose one thought over another, to create an intentional response to replace the usual automatic reaction.

Think about choosing gratitude for your many gifts and advantages, for the opportunity to save lives, for friends, family, faith, and forgiveness. Think about hopeful things, about caring strategies, about how much you love certain people and what they mean to you. Think about your mission – saving lives and spreading comfort and even cheer in dark times. Prepare these choices, then “mind the gap” and insert these new thoughts and emotions before the negative emotions take over.

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