If you’re interested in self-development, learning how to pause when you’re distressed is an important and effective tool in changing your ways. I would argue it’s the most effective tool. You can’t use other tools without first pausing to assess the situation. The inability to pause acts like a gatekeeper for all other tools of self-development. Once you learn to pause, it has a cascade effect on your life. It enables you to use other tools like asking for information or support, researching best practices, or making reasoned assessments of your options.
Pausing is much more likely to result in a well-lived, purposeful life than reacting will. I’m going to list the many benefits of pausing. Then I’ll describe my process to learn how to pause after years of being a reactor. This will give you an idea of what that process might look like for you. I’ll also give you some sample phrases to use to let others (and yourself!) know that you need to pause. Then I’ll give a couple of concrete examples of how pausing improved my life.
Benefits of pausing.
Pausing is especially important in stressful situations. When we’re under stress our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode. That mode prepares us for action, not for thinking. In fact, the frontal lobe where our higher-order thinking takes place gets cut off in fight-or-flight mode so that we can act. By learning to pause for whatever length of time is necessary, we’re able to use higher-order thinking.
If you want to have a well-lived life, learning to pause when you’re upset or stressed is key. It’s impossible to live your life on purpose if you’re always making snap decisions or being reactive. Pausing enables you to think through options and their implications. This means you can tackle bigger decisions more easily. You’ll be able to see nuance and detail in ways you can’t when you’re reactive. You’ll be able to weigh your options and consciously choose from an array of choices. You’ll also be more likely to tap into your gut feeling about something.
If you’re interested in self-development, that means you’re going to have to engage in new behaviors. When you’re reactive, you’re likely only choosing from familiar behaviors, if you’re truly choosing at all. When you’re reactive, it’s almost impossible to change your behavior. You’re a creature of old habits. Once you learn to pause, new behaviors become possible. You’ll have an improved quality of life and it will be well worth the effort to learn how to pause.
Pausing also allows you to realize that sometimes, you just don’t know what to think or do. Learning to pause will give you the ability to not make a decision in such cases. Or perhaps delay your decision indefinitely. If you’re anything like I was before 12-step recovery, not making a decision about something was not an option! I remember reading the 12-step slogan “Don’t just do something, sit there” which baffled me. I was so used to acting, or I should say reacting, that just sitting there wasn’t an option! But just pausing until I know what to do works for me now. Learning how to do so takes time, but it’s well worth it.
How I learned to pause.
Reactive people are not in charge of their lives, no matter how much they may think they are. I am a good case in point. I was always a very independent woman. I chose a career and volunteered for causes I felt good about. But on a day-to-day basis, my behavior was very reactionary.
I learned to use a variety of tools in my 12-step recovery process that transformed my life. The #1 tool that I’ve used from the beginning is pausing. Before recovery, I was a very reactive person. Rather than responding to things, I reacted to them. If that distinction seems unclear to you, you can read more about that here.
Being reactive typically means we’re using our “lizard brain.” This is in contrast to using our “human brain” where mature, reasoned decision-making takes place. That is, reacting is almost an instinct, rather than a response arrived at after assessing the situation. This is where pausing comes in.
I’d heard, “When you’re angry, count to 10 before responding.” But that was the extent of anything I’d heard about pausing. I didn’t understand the value of pausing. And I certainly wasn’t capable of pausing. It was not an option for me, no matter how much I believed it might work. I just didn’t know how to pause.
I should add “taking a deep breath” to the mix here. It’s sometimes hard to believe, but we humans often forget to breathe when we’re stressed. That breath, especially a purposeful, deep breath, can be the difference between disaster and serenity. Personally, I have to pause first to take that deep breath.
First learning to pause was very difficult.
There are those in recovery who say “pause” stands for
When I was first learning to pause, there was no “praying.” There was no “using spiritual energy.” Learning to pause and respond instead of reacting was extremely difficult for me. In fact, it felt impossible. I’d been a reactor my entire life. No matter how much I believed that pausing worked for others, it just didn’t seem possible for me. I couldn’t see how to do it.
There is a piece of recovery literature that says, “We pause when agitated or doubtful.” That sounds like a tiny little thing. But for me, it’s turned out to be the foundation of my recovery. I can’t use any of the other tools I learned from recovery without pausing first.
Part of my inability to pause, I think, came from the sense of urgency I lived with constantly before recovery. I felt rushed all the time. I also felt like I had to have an answer for everything (even if I had to make it up!). What I remember about learning to pause is that it’s a process and it takes time. This is true of almost everything I learned in recovery.
Once I started to understand that pausing was a helpful thing to do, I started to think about it more and more. Eventually, there was about a one-second window that opened up for me during stressful situations. In that tiny little window, I (sort of) realized I had options. I was able to extend that little window to longer than one second because I reflected before and after my reactionary moments. I thought about how I handled things, and how I could have handled things. That time of reflection was an invaluable part of moving the process forward.
Here’s what my process of learning to pause looked like.
Early in the process of learning to pause, I’d do something using my usual dysfunctional patterns. Then maybe two weeks later I’d realized, “Hey, I probably shouldn’t have done that. I could have done X.” Noted. I stuck that “X” in my memory banks.
Then a little while later, I’d do something else that wasn’t the healthiest thing. And maybe a week later I’d realize, “I probably shouldn’t have done that. Maybe I could have done Y.” And then maybe the next time it would be a few days between doing the thing and realizing there were other options.
Note that I used the word “could” in my self-talk there, not “should.” That distinction matters. “Could” implies a choice, an option. “Should” is a dictate. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like dictates! Even when they come from me in my own head!
As time went on, I started to see the gap closing between the time I did something dysfunctional and the time I realized it was dysfunctional. And that I had other options! I got excited! I thought, “Pretty soon I’m gonna realize it as I’m doing it so I can stop! And eventually, I’ll realize it before I do or say anything f’d up!” Wow! Prevention!!
Paying attention to my behavior and this process really helped sensitize me to the kinds of things I was doing or saying that weren’t working out so great. I could think through how I might have handled it differently. I was on the lookout for situations that were likely to trigger my dysfunctional reactions. That is when pausing came in! Once I could see, “This is the exact kind of situation in which I normally make poor choices. How about if I pause before doing or saying anything!?”
What a relief! To learn that I could pause, take a deep breath, and actually THINK about what I might do or say! Learning to pause was monumental for me. Like climbing Mt. Everest. But it took time. And in this culture, we’re accustomed to quick fixes. Behavior change is not something that can happen quickly. This is especially so with long-standing behavior patterns.
Being reactive rather than proactive was a huge part of the difficulty of my life before recovery. That reactivity led to more and more stressful situations because I wasn’t fully present. I was reactive and often dissociated. The ability to pause allowed me to be fully present in situations. I was then able to consciously choose how to respond.
Until I started to pause and really think through stressful situations, I wasn’t aware that I was not living my life on purpose. Thoughtful, reasoned behavior was not modeled for me growing up. Because of that, I tended to socialize with others who were also reactors. So pausing was not something that was on my radar.
Phrases that can help you to pause.
Since learning to pause, I’ve come up with all kinds of phrases to allow for a pause. These phrases tell both me and the other party involved that I need to a moment or more. Some of them are below.
“Huh, I’m gonna have to think about that…”
“I’m not sure.”
“I’ll consider that.”
“I don’t know.” This was HUGE for me! I somehow grew up with the idea that saying IDK was cause for death, or something equally serious.
“I’m going to have to get back to you.”
“I’m gonna put a pause on that for now.”
“I’m not sure how to respond right now, I’ll get back to you.”
Examples of pausing in action.
Now I’m going to describe a couple of scenarios that illustrate the process I went through as I learned to pause.
The first has to do with my last boyfriend before recovery. We broke up about six months before my first 12 step meeting. We occasionally stayed in contact. He emailed me pretty regularly. Before learning to pause, it looked something like this:
I’d open my personal email while at work to check something. When there was a message from him, I would feel compelled to open it right then. Not only would I open it immediately, I felt the need to respond to it immediately. Very often, I’d get pissed off about it. That might be because of what he said, or that he “interrupted” me during my workday.
As time went on and I learned how to pause, I started to understand that I didn’t have to open his message right then. That may sound odd, but I really didn’t understand that. It just wasn’t an option for me. Once I started learning to pause, I came to think of it like this: if I didn’t have the psychic energy to open it, I’d wait until I did. When that time came, I’d open it and respond.
Later I realized that, just as I can pause before opening the email, I can also pause before responding to the email. That way I could be much more thoughtful in my reply. Interestingly, as time went on, my replies became shorter and shorter. And my tension decreased. I didn’t feel the pressure I used to feel — pressure to read, pressure to respond, the pressure of being pissed at him for interrupting me. And then it dawned on me that he wasn’t interrupting me. I was. I was the one who was choosing to open his emails during my workday. I was the one who was reacting to the contents.
Once I learned to pause, I had much less tension. I started to see what my part in all this was: that I was choosing to open his messages during my workday. Mind you, it didn’t feel like a choice for the longest time. It felt like something I just had to do! That’s called a compulsion, btw. But because of learning to pause, I came to see it as a choice. I became able to make a choice. And to stop blaming him for interrupting me.
In the end, I came to realize I didn’t have to open his messages! Ever. I finally texted him, “I wish you all the best, but I’m not interested in a relationship with you.” It took him years to stop contacting me. And it took me years to realize that I could block him from contacting me. As I did that, he’d find other avenues through which to contact me.
Years later, when I got a new phone I didn’t realize that I needed to re-block him. But because of learning to pause, I just deleted his message when it came through. Then I blocked him. I didn’t get agitated. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I accepted what was happening. I didn’t fight against it or resist it. I paused, then took reasoned action.
The next scenario has to do with a much longer pause. It turned into a permanent pause, but I didn’t know that initially. I was part of an organization that was thinking about merging with another organization. We went through a two-year process of visioning and discerning whether to merge. Both organizations voted not to merge.
In my opinion, the reason we voted against merging after such a long and thoughtful process was because of the leadership of my organization. They did some things I didn’t care for. I didn’t feel right about it and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back there. Because I wasn’t sure, I put a pause on that decision.
I thought, “If I go back to any organization it’s probably going be the other one.” I wasn’t sure and didn’t feel like I needed to decide right then. Over time, I kept feeling like not going to either organization. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. It turned out to be a permanent pause because I never went back to either of them. It felt good to allow myself the time to think about what I truly wanted, even though it took a couple of years.
Not “have to” but “get to.”
I don’t have to do anything. I get to do things. That means I no longer feel compelled to do things. Anything. I make reasoned choices about my life. Pausing has been instrumental in enabling me to do that. I have a much better life because I use my intelligence, rather than my wired reactions from childhood to determine the course of my life.
Learning how to pause can make all the difference between living a reactionary life of dysfunction, and thriving in a life you choose. The process of learning to pause takes time, but it’s well worth it. You’ll be able to live your life on purpose. Pausing has allowed me to live my life on purpose now, but I didn’t even know I wasn’t living my life on purpose before!
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”