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The Power of Pause

Stop. Count to 10.

We are creatures of instinct. We had to be. Back when violent death was an omnipresent danger, the caveman who hesitated was the one that got eaten. We are the end result of a long line of paranoid, impulsive cavemen.

Nowadays the “danger” we sense is a lot less physical but feels no less real. This gets in the way of our achieving our goals because we cannot really make the distinction between the fear due to the tiger running at us and the fear due to wanting to avoid being embarrassed.

We think we are making rational decisions but we what we are really doing is using our brains to justify and then implement the decision that an emotion, usually fear, is driving us to.

Fear Promotes Impulsiveness

What we need to do instead is short-circuit that initial impulse and re-engage our brains to actually analyze the situation and come up with a decision based on the facts.

The key is to realize that it is an impulse. Our emotions ignite and flash to the decision almost instantly, driven by these core survival imperatives. Fear biases us to make decisions quickly instead of making decisions rationally.

We feel a slight uneasiness and rather than treating it as what it really is, a warning to be alert for potential danger, we assume that there is an actual danger.

We then apply our rational minds to figure out this actual danger that must exist. After all, we wouldn’t be feeling uneasy for no reason right?

But when we shift from being alert to potential danger, with the implied possibility that there could turn out to be no danger, to making the assumption that danger actually exists we begin to stress ourselves out when we can’t identify it.

This almost inevitable escalation isn’t an unfortunate by-product, it is actually by design because in the absence of a clear and present danger, out cavemen instincts must assume the worst. Better to overreact for something that wasn’t as bad as we thought than under-react for something that ended up causing death.

What we need to do is reintroduce our conscious rational decision making. The good thing about this is that it is not complicated. Merely NOT following our impulse is enough.

We just need to pause.

Pausing Promotes Rationality

When we feel that fear or discomfort of uncertainty, we need to recognize how that is driving us and just stop short of making an actual decision in that moment.

The point is not to wait until our fear subsides, but rather not letting it drive us to a decision. We take a pause, then continue. We still feel that discomfort of fear. And if we feel it start to rise up into panic, we take another pause.

Again and again. Every time we feel the fear rising, we just disengage that clutch and let ourselves free wheel.

This will seem useless and frustrating initially but as we develop that habit to not act from instinct, it will slowly become automatic and fear will lessen it’s hold on us.

Don’t “Fight Fear”

Self-control is not about iron will, it is not about force. The incorrect metaphor we use is something like a rider on a bucking horse, fighting for control, but at that level of intensity there is no way we can win.

When we try and “battle” our fear, it becomes larger because in trying to eliminate it, we end up putting more focus on it.

Also, “fighting” implies that we are still stuck in a state of emotionally driven decision making and in that case fear is almost always going to win out.

Sometimes we give in to our fear initially but later manage to overcome it. In that case it is usually because we are more ashamed of the path we are following then scared of the path we are avoiding.

We wait for shame to battle our fear. Again, staying in that realm of emotionally driven decision making.

But we don’t have to wait that long, if we nip the fear in the bud it won’t grow to that point. Instead of going down the path of fear, we just don’t act at all.

Sit With Fear, Don’t Fight It

By building the habit of pausing, we re-introduce the fact that we are actually not in mortal danger and that allows us the time to engage our conscious minds.

The biggest obstacle to this is that fear is scary, it doesn’t feel good. And if our fear is telling us that the tiger is about to attack, our instinct is not to pause.

The metaphor we should use is more like driving down the road. When we start to drift a little bit, we don’t immediately panic and slam into fight or flight mode, we don’t go from driving down the road to rolling the car down a cliff.

When we start to drift, we undramatically steer back to center, often without conscious thought. We don’t call that “car control” we call that “driving”.

In the same way living our authentic selves is not about “self controL” it is about “living” consciously and the pause is the first step.