Emotional Awareness: Turning Autopilot Mode Off

“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.” – Viktor Frankl

Human beings are complex individuals. We are full of emotions which are always present in our day-to-day actions. To think of it, life without emotions would be robotic and boring. Managing our emotional states and our responses to our emotions and external stimuli is where a life of higher consciousness and awareness begins.

It all starts with our internal world. We are literally experiencing emotion every second of every day. Things happen around us and in turn, we have reactions to those events. On and on the cycle goes.

It’s very easy to live on “autopilot” and never examine or scrutinize our myriad emotions that we experience on any given day. I know that in my own life, for a very long time, I was an extremely reactive person. I had no self-control and was constantly at the mercy of external stimuli. People could say something to me and I’d react. Things wouldn’t go as I had planned or hoped, and I would lash out in anger. 

Back then, it never would have occurred to me that perhaps, by changing the way I responded to things in my life, that I could change and grow. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I have been actively participating in the work and daily practice of disrupting my “business as usual” reactions, and intentionally choosing how to respond to the various things, people, and events in my life.

Now for sure, I definitely still “lose it” from time to time. I still overreact, and I still lose control. However, it happens far less frequently and often than it used to. I think that’s all we can really ask for in our lives and from ourselves— not to be perfect, but to be better than we used to be.

Just like the quote by Viktor Frankl (mentioned above), our true growth and freedom lie in our response to the external stimuli of the world around us. It is up to us to be, as author Stephen Covey calls it, “response-able” in our daily life— demonstrating, as the word implies, the ability to consciously respond to our emotions and external stimuli in life.

It’s also important to remember that reactions and emotions are not necessarily bad. I’m not saying that we should avoid and never feed into our feelings and emotions, but on the contrary— to be acutely aware of them and how they affect our lives. Emotions are part of the spice of life. They are what make us do what we do.

Essentially what I’m getting at is to challenge your habitual patterns of thought. Consciously choose how to respond to the things in your life, despite what emotions you are feeling. Just for a day, try and see all the places and situations you find yourself reacting in your life. Take inventory of the different range of emotions you experience, and inquire of yourself whether or not you are really aware of what’s going on beneath the surface and how you are responding to them. You may be very surprised just how much of your day you operate on autopilot.

Let’s say, for example, you review your day. You remember something at work that happened which stirred up your emotions. Perhaps a coworker did or said something that particularly angered you. Notice if you immediately reacted and lashed out at them. In this case, your work lies in doing your best not to immediately react from anger the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

It’s totally okay to experience anger and frustration; they are normal emotions to experience from time to time. It's when we immediately react, feed into these emotions and act rashly, that can this can hurt us in the long run.

The real growth and transformation come when we proactively choose to respond in a different way, as opposed to a pure reaction. Remember to be patient and kind with yourself through the process of managing your emotions. Anytime you notice you are reacting, or get caught up, simply start over and begin again and again. Each moment is a new opportunity for change and growth. With discipline and practice, the space between stimulus and response will inevitably grow larger and larger.

How do you control your reactions to strong emotions?
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