Creating Change by Refraining
When I wrote the word "refraining" I immediately thought how it can have a slightly judgmental quality about it. Refraining makes me think of abstinence, fasting, doing without. Refraining can feel a bit like a punishment - you refrain from eating red meat, drinking a second (or third) cocktail, driving above the speed limit, etc. But actually, the art of refraining has a lot to do with psychological health and is a pretty powerful tool if you think of it from a behavioral perspective.
Stuff happens. You respond. There's a consequence.
That's pretty much how behavior works whether you are a snail, a dog, or a human. A mouse sees a hawk flying toward it. The mouse runs into a hole. The mouse doesn't become breakfast. Your partner says something that annoys you. You yell at him. You feel guilty and stay locked in conflict. This stuff is deeply rooted in your brain, in fact, you can picture it as a clear, well-worn path in your neural pathways. You don't even think about it, it just happens.
Slowing Down, Pausing, Refraining
Sometimes there is no need for a refrain. If the mouse paused, he'd become breakfast. But if you paused when your partner said something that annoyed you, perhaps you would get a different response from him? Perhaps you would feel differently yourself? Refraining is simply carving out some time to notice what is going on, think about it or really feel it (even for just a second) and consider your response. In this sense, refraining means to refrain from reacting unconsciously, without thought or consideration. You may still yell at your partner but you have a moment to notice the old familiar patterns and consider choosing something different.
Refraining also helps with internal stuff you react to. Think about when you notice a painful emotion well up inside. You often unconsciously make a choice to avoid the feeling. Eating, drinking, bad TV, Facebook bingeing - whatever your choice is for numbing and avoiding feeling the pain. And of course, the formula still works: stuff happens (a painful feeling), you respond (by avoiding or numbing) and there's a consequence (you feel worse, you stay in bed, your life gets very small and narrow). What if you refrained from acting right away and chose to stay in contact with the feeling? I'm not suggesting martyrdom, but I am suggesting being present to the pain, conscious of it, and thinking about if there is a better or more flexible way to respond to it. Refrain from just jumping into your old behavior, refrain from reacting without consciousness, refrain yourself and consider something different.
There are lots of ways to practice this but the simplest is your breath. A single, intentional inhalation and exhalation can be enough to slow down or stop the typical behavioral chain. Or perhaps a few slow deep breaths will help. Or maybe (especially in a conflict with another) taking a time out and leaving the room so that you can collect yourself will help. Regular meditation practice certainly helps train the brain to refrain more easily but even simple breaths can help slow you down and allow some space to consider something different.