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  • Rob Orman

10. The Space Between Stimulus and Response

Updated: Jun 29

Sometimes it feels like we’re buffeted by the winds of life and have little control over what happens to us. The more this cycle recurs, the more helplessness embeds itself into our psyche. Chances are that some of the decisions you make (or don’t make) come from a place of internally throwing your hands up and feeling like you have no say in the matter. The opposite of this mind-frame is called 'agency', or acting with agency. When you act with agency, you own your decisions and act with specific intent. It’s not always easy to get there, however.


In this episode of Stimulus, we speak with Christina Shenvi MD, PhD about acting with agency -- what it means, some actionable skills, and how to apply it. We also talk about: the importance of being specific and deliberate about your philosophy of life, how remembering your mortality puts the rest of life in perspective, Stoic philosophy, Viktor Frankl, and whether or not we have free will.

Guest Bio: Dr. Christina Shenvi MD, PhD is a fellowship trained geriatric emergency physician from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where she is the director of the UNC Office of Academic Excellence. She's host of her own show, GEMCAST, focusing on clinical topics to help physicians, trainees, nurses, and paramedics who take care of older adults, particularly in the acute care setting.


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We discuss:


Corporate vs. personal mission statements and how codifying your life philosophy can help you live with intent [03:00];

  • Corporate mission statements are often hollow, given short shrift, and not actually used as guideposts for the company.

  • Giving structured thought to your life philosophy and developing a personal mission statement can help you see how you’re doing in life and with your time. Further, it can help you judge your decisions.

  • Most people have a general idea of who they are and what they believe in, but they haven’t developed a true mission statement. For many, devising a personal mission statement feels intimidating.


Rob and Christina’s personal mission statements [06:15];

  • Rob came to realize his life philosophy when he reflected on the times when he was least happy at work or in his life situation. During these times he found that he was not fully engaged or present.

  • His mission statement is to be fully present (and not distracted) for his family, himself, and his work.

  • Shenvi likes to think about general missions. Hers include following best practices at work, making sure she’s listening to her team, leading and teaching her kids well, teaching others how to teach and learn more effectively, and using her strengths to their full extent.

  • The simpler and more memorable your mission statement, the more likely it will permeate your day-to-day life.


The fact that even when we try our best to act in accordance with our values, it sometimes feels like there are magnetic forces pulling us away [08:30];

  • There are so many forces and pressures pulling us in different directions. These come from other people, societal expectations, etc.

  • Marcus Aurelius said: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

  • If you think of your life as already over, it removes the pressure and worry about messing up your mission statement. You can just focus more clearly on the things that really matter.


Martin Luther, the famous theologian, said that there are two days that matter, this day and judgement day [10:35];

  • If you look back on your life when you’re dying, what will matter most at that point is the current moment.

  • We will be living well if we live today with the perspective of what we will care about at the end of our life. Be present.

  • Keeping a view of our own mortality keeps us better in tune with reality.


The concept of Memento Mori [12:00];

  • When you’re getting bent out of shape about minor things, remember your mortality.

  • Maintain the reality check that you’re not immortal. Appreciate that every moment means so much.


The psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, whose writing about stimulus and response makes you feel like he was peering into the human soul [16:27];

  • Frankl wrote: “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.”

  • Too often, when we receive a stimulus, we respond/react immediately without pausing in that potential space to think about how we’d like to react to it.

  • One of the core goals of Stoicism is to notice, understand and then control what happens in that space between a stimulus and a response.


Whether we have free will [18:10];

  • If you consider where your thoughts come from you might realize, as Eckhart Tolle said, that “you are not the thinker”. You are the observer.

  • For the most part, you have no control over thoughts, especially the ones that pop into your head without you invoking them. Free will does not exist there.

  • But you may (and this is a matter of great debate) have free will in other scenarios, such as what you choose to do with thoughts that come up in the potential space between stimulus and response.


Stephen Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and what the word responsibility means from a Stoic perspective [19:45];

  • Responsibility is the ability to choose your response.

  • Covey says: “Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”

  • In other words, your actions are a result of your choice. You can’t blame other people.


What it means to have agency and the way it relates to how you see yourself making decisions [22:55];

  • Agency is owning what you do, what you think, and how you feel.

  • When you get caught up in the emotion of being upset with someone, you give that person the power to affect the way you feel. You’ve gone directly from stimulus to response instead of pausing and choosing how you will respond.

  • Agency means understanding that you have a choice in anything that you do. Realizing that you choose to do something (even something that you might dread), sometimes makes it much more tolerable.

  • There’s a lot we can learn from owning what we do, but also how we feel and react to people.


The importance of knowing that you are the author of your own story [26:10];

  • You have your own internal locus of control and have responsibility for the direction that you decide to take.

  • The first premise of Stoicism is that external things are not the problem. It’s your judgement of them.


Learned helplessness and how it stifles creativity [28:00];

  • Learned helplessness is allowing ourselves to feel that we are victims or that we are subject to external things. It makes us feel as if we have no choice.

  • Agency is the opposite of learned helplessness. It’s reframing how we think so we acknowledge that everything we do (going to work, being angry, etc) is our choice.

  • With agency, we can hopefully escape some of that learned helplessness so that we don’t lose our ability to problem solve and be creative.


Barriers to acting with agency [29:50];

  • One of the barriers is our habit. We’re so used to having a stimulus and response and no space in between. We’re used to blaming other people for our feelings.

  • It takes a lot of hard mental work to act with agency. It’s much easier to get angry and feel hurt than it is to acknowledge that your feelings are within your control.


Different approaches to managing your emotions when criticized by a colleague or consultant [31:40];

  • The immediate response is often to be angry, affronted, and hurt. But the outcome of our reaction is often much more than our internal milieu. It bleeds out into all the people around us.

  • A better tactic is to stretch out the space between stimulus and response and intellectualize the situation. First, try to understand how you’re feeling (ie. hurt, intimidated, angry). Second, try to understand your thoughts, because those thoughts are the filters that create your emotion. Third, try to change those thoughts and choose a different thought that is believable to you.

  • An analytical method can also be used to stretch the space. Pause and examine objectively what actually happened in the physical universe when you were verbally insulted.

  • Taking the opposite extreme, you could use the intuitive method, looking at things from a very big picture. Looking at the entire span of the universe, how big a deal is this thing that just happened?


How Shenvi skillfully manages negative swirls of emotion [41:10];

  • She starts by analyzing and identifying the thoughts behind her feelings. She then addresses those thoughts and asks herself how she prefers to feel about it (ie. calm, steady, optimistic). Then she chooses new thoughts which will help her get to the way she wants to feel.


Shownotes by Melissa Orman, MD




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