One Pause at a Time

Learning how to recognize our default reactions

Apr 18, 2023

Personal Growth Perspective Life Lessons Self-Awareness Psychology
volcano erupting

Photo by Toby Elliott

The argument was meaningless, as many marital arguments tend to be. One sentence became a trigger for the other, which led to defensiveness and trying to prove each other’s points. Things got taken out of context, the past was brought into the present, the words “always” and “never” got thrown around… the usual culprits. Needless to say, what was supposed to be a relaxing, enjoyable walk around the neighborhood during our lunch hour turned into anything but. I was ready to initiate the silent treatment for the remainder of the day. Except this time, something I had read that morning in my devotion about responding with love nudged me in a different direction.

Ingrained habits. Default modes. Initial reactions. We all have them. They are automatic, instant, and don’t require any mental effort on our part. They have been molded over years, beginning in childhood, slowly cementing themselves into our character and ways of thinking. But how often are we analyzing them to see if they are still helpful or accurate? We may go on living our life and engaging with others without ever considering that these may be faulty. We often won’t change them until confronted by someone else, or until they lead to negative circumstances that force us to reevaluate them.

This is the work of self-improvement. It is the work of pausing before reacting.

Eckhart Tolle talks about it in terms of spaciousness—filling the mind with stillness to prevent it from reacting based on thought. If we don’t pause, our default modes, our old ways of thinking, our damaging beliefs about ourselves and others and the world, take over. They are eager and ready to strike, prepared to destroy anything in their path. Self-defense mechanisms are powerful and not to be dealt with lightly. There’s a reason they are so deep-seated… we are attempting to protect the most delicate parts of our psyche. We are just going about it in ways that no longer work.

God actually calls us to do this personal growth work in 2 Corinthians 10:5:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

Take captive every thought. The use of the word ‘captive’ in this verse is particularly interesting. defines it as “a prisoner” or “a person who is enslaved or dominated” in the noun form, and “made or held prisoner” or “kept in confinement or restraint” in adjective form. God knew from the very beginning that our thoughts would often be our downfall and needed to be “dominated” and “restrained.” Because from our thoughts flow our spoken words and actions, which have the power to lift up or tear down. We are called to scrutinize our thought life and change it if needed so that it reflects the character of Christ.

This work takes conscious effort and willingness on our part. We begin with just recognizing the default reactions as they happen. Then we incrementally add more and more space between the thought or emotion that is triggered and the reflexive outburst. In this created space, we will find the grace needed to self-control. We will find an openness that begins to widen to let in more and more empathy, more understanding, more recognition of the places we and others need to heal. Our ego-driven stance will diminish, no longer needing to be instantly right. No longer out for vengeance.

The moment you become aware of the ego in you, it is strictly speaking no longer the ego, but just an old, conditioned mind-pattern. Ego implies unawareness. Awareness and ego cannot coexist.

~Eckhart Tolle

I want to get to that place… the place where my first and last reaction is love. This does not mean becoming a doormat, or overlooking injustice. It means seeing the suffering that all beings have to endure in one form or another and meeting them where they are, as God does with us. Being able to see the pain veiled behind the reaction. To see the deep unmet need hidden beneath a pile of temperamental eruptions. We are often walking volcanoes, ready to explode and spew hurtful words. There is much that contributes to the boiling—resentment, unresolved conflict, unprocessed pain. The explosion is merely the tip of the iceberg. We must deal with the underlying cause, as painful as it can be.

It is not easy work, but it’s necessary. What does it require from us? Loads of humility. To put aside our ego and pride and all their destructive schemes. For these have no place in God’s idea of fellowship. It asks us to put being in healthy, life-giving relationships over being right. Many a lonely soul live with the satisfaction of having won the argument. Once we have moved our hubris out of the way, an awareness begins to rise up in us. We see the damage our hurtful reactions have caused. We recognize how they are keeping us from the very connection we crave. And we are convicted, one pause at a time.

There is something else this work requires—a desire to evolve into kinder versions of ourselves.

We have to want to do better and be better. Otherwise, the rewards of this work will be short-lived. We will know we are making progress when we begin recognizing the “default” part of our reactions; when we make the subconscious, conscious. Our growth will be evident when we find ourselves pausing when triggered, taking a breath before responding. This is the space that is needed to move us into a way of living where we are not provoked as easily, freeing us to proceed with love and tenderness instead of fear and animosity, with compassion and patience instead of anger and agitation. Our task, after all, as Rumi said—”is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

I’m planning to incorporate more pauses in the near future and beyond. Because when we do the difficult work to push through our rough edges in order to soften them, everyone benefits. Our spouses, our friends, our family members, our coworkers. Less triggers lead to less outbursts. The seething lava underneath our hard shells cools down. The space we create from the awareness of our reactivity opens up the room needed for others to feel safe to draw nearer. And in that closeness, we find the connection we’d been looking for all along.