“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”
Hands up if you have ever experienced a time when, after some reflection, you just did not feel right about how you handled a conversation or situation?
Here are some examples:
“Oh my, I totally blew up at my kid today when he refused to turn off his computer”
“I hung up on my boyfriend last night, I was so annoyed.”
“I got into a fight with my mom and just screamed at her”
“I talked back to my manager today and kind of told them off….”
“Some guy just cut me off in traffic this morning and I rolled down the window and swore at him….not to mention in front of my kids!”
Can you relate to any of these comments? What do all these statements have in common? Yes, they are all human reactions. Likely, a reaction such as the above occurred because of a response to an unregulated emotion experienced at the time of an interaction, which may or may not have anything to do with the current situation ( although your brain and thinking may make it feel like it does). For example, is it really about that guy that cut you off or because you hare 20 minutes late for work, your partner slept in and so you had to take care of everything this morning? Or maybe that guy looked like an ex or your old Boss that you dislike.
Or maybe it really is about that guy cutting you off in traffic. Whatever it is , you may not have time (and it may not be possible) to figure it all out in the moment. But what you can do is regulate your emotions.
Unfortunately, reactions such as these are followed by regrets or remorse-“I wish I hadn’t said that” or “I wish I handled that differently”, “If only I gave myself time to think before reacting” (although thinking IS a reaction)
Well, good news. You CAN handle things differently going forward and you DO have time before reacting. How? Yes, I’ll repeat: by regulating your emotions.
You may have heard someone give you advice such as “Next time, stop and take a breath before you respond or react.” Thanks, right? What they are trying to tell you is, “Hey. You acted out of emotion. Take a moment to regulate yourself, get some perspective, and then decide on how you want to proceed”
The process of emotional self regulation can be challenging and sometimes we don’t have too much time between stimulus and response, but you can create and learn how to use the space necessary to regulate your emotions
How many times have you heard and understood this, and even practiced this, only to find yourself in a reaction mode once again? Easier said than done.
A popular technique used in emotional regulation is the STOPP technique. This is an acronym for
Stop, Take a Breath, Observe, Pull back and get perspective, and Practice. Here is a link to a YouTube video demonstrating this skill: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NHZkQ57wzE.
In the heat of the moment however it can be hard to take even the first step in STOPP. Just saying to yourself, ‘” stop!,” before you go any further and say or do something out of pure emotion rather than rational thought, is challenging enough.
Having been a parent of several cats over the last 30 years in combination with my coaching and counselling background with extensive work in emotional wellness, I wanted to share a simple self-regulation technique I have used that accompanies and incorporates the STOPP process. This uses a physical stance to help facilitate and prompt the PAUSE required to regulate the emotions. I use this quite often myself to the point where I have habituated a tilting of the head as a cue to respond with the STOPP technique, with the reward being feeling more in control
What happens and HOW does the Curious Cat technique help regulate emotions and lead to a response I can feel good about?
The Curios Cat, or tilting of the head, not only creates a PHYSICAL shift but can prompt a PSYCHOLOGICAL shift in perspective, which is what we need. It gives you that SPACE AND TIME between stimulus and response (from the quote from Viktor E. Frankl) so you can recognize, identify, understand, and regulate your emotions. By regulating your emotion, you are more likely to decide and response based as a result of a thought-out, methodical, rational mindset rather than on the first emotion that arises in you.
You can also use this space to:
Cool off and calm down. Yes, you can use this temporary pause to engage in some hypo-arousing and calming activity such as deep breathing, self-soothing and grounding techniques. Here is an article on 30 strategies for calming distressful thoughts and emotions: https://www.healthline.com/health/grounding-techniques
Create a curious mindset. Once your brain goes from judgement mode to “I wonder” mode, you have control of your reaction. Curiosity, wonder and awe -like mindset can help you go from anger and frustration to wanting to find out more about what is really going on.
What might you be curious about?
What might be behind the person saying what they are saying? What are you feeling and what might be contributing to this (focusing on your senses, body sensations)?
Maybe you are wondering what happened in this person’s life for them to behave this way or feeling awe in response to a reaction or situation you are taken aback by.
Cultivate a more objective outlook, allowing you to take a step out of yourself and see what is going on in you and in the other person/persons. It gives you a chance to interpret the situation. Do your emotions and thoughts have to do with what is going on in your external environment or is there something going on in you? Perhaps a conscious or subconscious trigger? Stepping outside of yourself is a great way to get some perspective and separate yourself from the emotion for a moment.
Allows time for Cognitive Restructuring and to rethink your interpretation of a situation. Although this is often used in therapy and will take longer and it takes much more than a Curious Cat technique to reprogram automatic negative thinking, you can still use this space to challenge your thought, which may elicit a more positive emotional response, and this reaction. Here is a link to information on this. https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-guide/cognitive-restructuring
You may ask yourself, what else may be going on here? Is what I think going on necessarily the truth and reality? Is it possible I am wrong about what is going on here?
Here is how it works in 7 STEPS
It may help to think or visualize yourself in a situation where you feel you are more likely to be reactive (someone cutting you off in traffic, an interaction with a parent or challenging co-worker…. I am sure you can come up with a few circumstances, otherwise you would not be drawn to this article!
The next time you find yourself in an interesting conversation or situation……
- Let the person finish what it is they are trying to communicate. If you have difficulty with this, you can try doing some deep breathing. Pay attention to what you are experiencing in your body. Remind yourself that you are 100% responsible for your reaction no matter what they say/don’t say.
Now Stop and take a breath and then…….
- Tilt your head (to the right or left, whatever your preference) like a cat would when they spot something new or different, or something moving. Something interesting. If you are not familiar with this look, here is a picture:
Note: You are not performing a neck stretch; you just want to tilt the head slightly, at 20 or so degrees. Nor is this a prey-predator situation (even though you may feel this way). The point is to regulate the emotions so that you do not end up pouncing and acting or making decisions you might later regret.
The person you are interacting with may ask what is going on and you can say:
“I’m just listening and reflecting on what you said.”
“I’m just taking a moment to think about my response”
And you have choices. You do not need to respond right away. You can simply say, “I have to think about this and get back to you.” Or “I need a few more moments”
With your head now tilted, you can now try the following steps (derived from the STOPP technique):
- Observe. You can observe the other person and/or or yourself, the situation.
This is where you want to tap into your inner voice and do some self-talk. For example, I have had people think:
“Hmmm. What an interesting statement or situation. I’m curious as to what happened to this person for them to react this way”
“Oh. I notice my whole body has tightened up and my heart is racing. What might be happening for me? Is it really about this person and/or situation?
“Well, this is not what I expected. I misunderstand or I am not communicating what I want”
This differs from observing in that now you are trying to make sense of the situation. A situation is neutral, but it is your judgement of the situation and what you make it mean that you will react to.
This is where you can practice shifting your perspective and reframing the situation. How you interpret a situation will affect your emotional reaction, which if left unregulated, will affect your reaction. Some ideas that may work include:
Trying different words to express your experience i.e., instead of “nasty” you can put “fascinating”
Note that you do not have to have everything figured out and all your emotions processed and analyzed. This can be done later. We are REGULATING our emotions. This is NOT PROCESSING our emotions.
- Choose your response and decide to on how you want to proceed.
Yes, YOU are responsible for your reaction. Now that you have had a chance to stop, take a breath, observe, and briefly interpret, then you get to choose how you want to respond.
You can ask yourself questions like:
What would be a move I could make at this time that I would feel good about going forward?
My instinct is to “x,” what might be another approach I could take in this situation?
I usually say/do “x” (i.e give advice) but what if I try responding by listening instead ( and asking them what they feel they should do?)
How will how I react affect me in the next 5 minutes, 5 months, 5 years?
Responses (or really, options) may include, among others:
- Cool down period (asking to leave the conversation or pause and then come back to it when you are feeling calmer and/or ready)
- Cultivating the Curiosity further: ask more questions, get some clarity
- Just listen, keep observing
- Try out some compassion and empathy
*Note: Not responding IS a Response
- Then tilt your head back. You have now either:
a. Regulated the emotion (further processing may need to be done later) and are able to interpret the situation and decide not based on emotion but on your interpretation which you have now had time to reflect and assess upon OR
b. You have had enough time to pause, reflect and realize that your emotions need a little more processing and now is not the time to continue the conversation. In this case you can ask for more time so you can really think about your next steps.
- Practice, Reflect and Process. Keep in mind that the Curious Cat technique is used in the moment. You may need to revisit what happened/didn’t happen and what the emotions and thought processes that came up for you were all about. Some processing may need to occur later. This step may involve:
- Practicing: on other humans, non-humans, and inanimate objects.
- Process any emotions and thoughts that you did not have time for or are lingering on. This can be done in a journal, talking to a trusted friend or family, or even having a follow up conversation with the individual you were in conversation with.
- Keep reflecting, learning, and acting! What went well? What didn’t? What might you do differently or keep doing next time? This is a skill that can be developed.
Before I end this article, I did want to point out 2 points:
- There are a few times when this may not work such as:
If you are in an urgent situation or emergency. If your cat sees a big dog barking at it, it will likely not gently tilt its head in a state of introspection. Sometimes, you must act. Fast. This is not a deer in headlights!
If you are in an urgent situation or emergency and need to respond immediately
If you feel unsafe, threatened, or worry of potential harm
- Make sure you check in with your overall stress levels.
No matter how many times you practice regulating your emotions, if you are under stress, your brain is likely busy regulating other needs first and it can be challenging to do!
So no, you may not be able to go back and undo your reaction, but you can reflect and learn from this and implement emotional self-regulation strategies so you do not find yourself suffering in the aftermath of poor emotional self regulation.
I hope you have fun with this technique and that it may be something that might help you, and in turn others, respond and react in a way you feel good about, facilitating healthier and more effective communication and nurturing better relationships not only with yourself but with your outer world.