Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Mind the gap between stimulus and response.


Our values represent what matters most to us. They’re not goals, fixed “Whats” that we aim at and strive toward, but “Hows” that represent the way we make decisions, the criteria most heavily weighted in trade-offs, the manner in which we want to live and be.

In our mid-lives, we often reassess these values, which for many of us have been locked or frozen and operating beneath our conscious deliberation. They have often been dictated by what we feel we should be, how we should act, an image of correctness. Our revaluation is one of the components of what is sometimes popularly called a midlife crisis. One person may trade in the stability of a professional career for the adventure of entrepreneurship.  Another could downplay the need to project expertise and authority for the humility of the life-long learner. Others could move in precisely the opposite directions!

Moments of Truth

Well, this midlife crisis can be very valuable indeed if we can also learn to access the critical moments when our values can best serve us, what I call moments of truth. These are times of intense emotion in which we have always defaulted to habits of thought and action laid down long ago. Usually times when our self-images are threatened, they are moments when our auto-pilots have dictated our response to whatever has triggered us. 

Perceived disrespect from a colleague, a late cancellation from a friend, unkindness from our spouse, a dig in a social media comment. These and countless other triggers catalyze cascades of thought, feeling, words and deeds in which we seem to be mere passengers. Only afterwards do we think, “Wow, that really blew up! Where did that come from?”

Viktor Frankl’s Gap

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist, philosopher, Holocaust survivor and author. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he highlighted what he saw as humans’ unique gift and opportunity.

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 freedom.

Frankl’s “spaces” are what I’m calling moments of truth. For many of us, through most of our lives, the truth they reveal is that we remain driven by childish (though incredibly powerful) forces. We are physically grown but in important senses not fully adult. 

To step into full adulthood, we must recognise the moments of truth and cultivate our ability to access them. By “access” I mean become sufficiently adept at working with our most intense feelings that we refrain from pushing the autopilot “Panic Button”. In that pause, we see the gap that in important ways defines our humanity.

Back to Values

Okay, so when you recognise them, work with your emotions and access these moments of truth, what do you do? What happens in the brief empty space that used to be the launch button for your autopilot? Well, that depends on your values. 

These moments are when the truth of what matters most to you gets its chance to shine. Finally, you create, one critical moment-of-truth at a time, a response that points toward a life and a self of your own creation.

Each of these moments of truth involves a choice, though. You don’t solve this “auto-pilot problem” once and move smoothly to a new, enlightened way of operating. The triggers and buttons that have activated you in the past will still trigger the strong feelings they always have. You, though, now recognize the choice you have: act according to old habits that no longer serve you, or act in line with what matters most to you, now?

The “now” is important. Values are not static rules but living expressions. Don’t free yourself from old stories only to lock yourself into a new one by taking values as weighty “shoulds”. Every time the choice is before you, values are a chance to do, not because you should, but because you will it.

As someone who has struggled to consistently access my moments of truth to exercise my freedom and live my own values, I know that doing it is easier than writing or reading it! It takes work and benefits from help.

Let me know if you’d like to discuss it.

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