How to Make Unfixated Choices

Exploring the space between stimulus and response

"A bowl of marshmallows by Ansel Adams"

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Several years ago I somewhat lost my composure during a meeting at work. My manager had called me out for something in front of the team, but without talking to me about it first. I had no idea it was coming and felt attacked, triggered even, and had to navigate wanting to address it in a direct, but professional way.

This is not an easy thing to do, because strong emotions tend to carry us away into habitual responses that might not be suitable for the context. If I had let my emotions take over completely in that meeting, I probably would have got myself in trouble. At the same time, those emotions were telling me that I was being treated badly, and I don’t want to suppress such valuable information.

In the end I responded to my manager in a just-about-contained way, but not as skillfully as I would have liked. In this essay I want to talk about how you can handle these things better than I did. The trick is to be totally open to what’s happening, while being perfectly free to choose any response. 

The way to do this is made clear in that well-known quote that’s usually, but incorrectly, attributed to Viktor Frankl:

“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.” – Not Viktor Frankl

Regardless of their provenance, these words contain a lot of wisdom. That space is what gives us the capacity to choose, but what Not Viktor Frankl doesn’t elaborate on is how to create that space and that the different qualities of space affect the kinds of choices we can make.

That’s what I’m going to explore here by stepping through the three kinds of choices I had when I got angry at my manager’s comments, which are the same kinds of choices you have in response to anything that happens inside or outside you: no choice, fixated choice and unfixated choice.

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If you don’t notice you have a choice, you have no choice

The lowest level of choice is not making a conscious choice at all, which happens when you don’t notice that you even could make a choice. In this case there is effectively no space between stimulus and response, so you just act out your habitual behavior unconsciously. If you ever find yourself skimming the news or looking in the fridge without having consciously chosen to do it, there is no space between stimulus and response.

It’s important to emphasize that it’s not just that you don’t make a choice, but that you literally can’t make a choice, which I talk about in detail in You can only respond to what you notice. This is why learning to create that space and to pause within it, even if just for a moment, is crucial to open the door to greater agency.

Our everyday language reflects this observation, for example when you say that you "catch yourself" doing, or about to do, something. This is the sudden entering-into-awareness of your own automatic behaviors while they’re happening, which gives you the chance to reflect on whether you want to continue them.

In many ways, this can be seen as the holy grail of habit formation, because you don’t want to have to think about every tiny decision as you go about your day. The problem is that this is only desirable when all your habits are good, or, put another way, that they all accord with what you would do if you had the space to reflect and choose. It also assumes that you live in a fixed, unchanging world, where your set of habits is always good, regardless of circumstance.

The space between stimulus and response gives you the power to respond non-habitually if you want or need to. Put another way, my habitual response to my manager’s comments that day could have been fully appropriate. Indeed, this becomes more likely with learning and experience, but I still want the capacity to interrupt even good habits in circumstances where they might not be appropriate.

The absence of space between stimulus and response is a kind of unconsciousness, the way out of which is to create a meta-habit to pause, even if very briefly, in response to stimuli, thereby creating a space. The thing is, though, that there are actually two ways to create and expand that space, which I'm going to call fixated and unfixated, and one is far more constructive than the other. Let’s look at the non-constructive one first, because that’s the one that will probably be more familiar.

Fixated choice is constrained and effortful

Let’s say something triggers strong emotions in you and you’re aware enough in the moment to notice an impulse to say something blunt in response. You pause, reflect briefly and decide not to, but the way you make this choice brings with it a kind of tension, both mental and physical. It's almost as if not saying the thing requires some kind of effort or strain.

What’s happening here is a kind of resistance that puts “I want to say it” and “I won't say it” on opposite sides of an internal Tug Of War. The problem with this is that, in a very real way, you’re still fixated on and in some way being controlled by the thing you don’t want to say, which continues to tug on your attention. It’s as if you’re constantly doing some action called “don’t say it”. Sure, you might not actually say it, but you’re still doing a lot of work and burning mental, emotional and even physical energy in the process of not saying it.

There are a couple of ways you can tell if you're making a fixated choice like this. One is to look out for tension in your body. It’s often the same kind of muscle tension that people use when they want to think harder—generalized tension in the neck and shoulders, shallower breathing and frowning across the eyes and forehead—even though neither not saying something, nor thinking, are helped in any way by muscle tension. You can experience this right now: just try really hard to make more sense of what I'm saying and see how your body responds.

Another way is to learn to notice what’s happening with your broad awareness of the space around you. I’ve written before about the idea that awareness—the breadth of things you are able to notice in any given moment—can expand and collapse. Collapsed awareness is like tunnel vision, where there’s a sense that the wider world around you goes away while the thing you’re paying attention to seems somehow larger and more salient. 

This collapse of awareness also happens when you make a fixated choice. To lean on the Tug Of War image a little further, it's like both teams experience tunnel vision that's focused on the other team and the rope, pulling harder and harder until one team falls into the mud.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the fixated choice also prevents you from doing the thing you're resisting, at least until you first stop the active process of resisting. In other words, what you're doing is saying 'no' to something in such a way that you can't easily say 'yes' to it, should you want to. 

“What’s the big deal?” you may ask. Isn’t that the point? Perhaps, from a local perspective, but it makes it impossible for you to change your mind if you want or need to—you’re still fixated on ‘no’—and you’re burning resources in the process. What if the situation changes or you realize you were wrong and need to change tack? You can’t go straight to yes—you have to cease the internal battle first.

Consider that this same dynamic applies to all stimuli that you could respond to, including thoughts and ideological positions. This is how fixed ways of being become entrenched and how changing one's mind becomes difficult. A better way is never to resist in the first place, such that all pathways are available to you at any moment and without effort.

Unfixated choice is free and effortless 

The fixated choice above reveals a tendency of the mind to want to resolve things that seem unresolved, to come down on one side or the other of an argument, and to make ambiguous things be just one clearly defined way. This is the world of categorization, polarization and conflict. The difference between this and the unfixated choice is subtle, but it’s a subtlety that, once noticed and embodied, opens the door to an entirely new way of being. 

Let's go back to that emotionally-charged response and explore a different scenario, where upon noticing the thing you want to say, you pause again, but in a different way. Whereas before, when there was a clear battle between 'want' and 'will not’, this time the pause is filled with a sense of 'maybe' and 'not yet'. Instead of creating two opposing forces and picking one side, you become available to both options at once. And not just these two options, but other options as well. 

This might seem difficult to grasp, and it is. I’m pointing to a part of your experience that might be hard to see, but once you’ve got it can be extremely powerful. To make it clearer, let me define a new term called ‘couldness’, which is the extent to which you could do something, without implying that you actually do it. Let’s play with turning your couldness up right now.

I imagine you read a lot, so you’ll have certain habitual ways of reading that reduce your couldness. As you keep reading these words, I invite you to remember that you could stand up, sing or wave your arms around. Don’t actually do any of these things, but know deeply that these are actions that are available to you right now. How does just knowing that change your experience in this moment? 

Let's go a bit further, using movement as a frame. As you continue to read this paragraph, I'd like you to expand the field of places it feels conceivable that you could go right now. Is it just a few steps around you? What about the end of the street? Could you go to some landmark in your town? What about a different town? Ignore practicalities, what I’m aiming to do here is to remind you that more of the world exists and that you have the capacity to act within it.

As you did this, were you able to notice the 'move' you made that’s associated with increasing your couldness? As you may have noticed, it’s hard to point to directly, but once you see it, you get it. This is the way of the unfixated choice: to make a choice while still being able to put it down and navigate within a larger set of possibilities. 

At this point you may be wondering how it’s possible to act in this state. Isn’t it necessary to choose one path or the other to be able to move forward? This is where the difference between the fixated and unfixated choice becomes clear. 

In both cases, you are making a choice,  but the ways in which you make the choices are different. With the unfixated choice, you choose not to respond in such a way as you could still choose to respond. Or, vice versa, you decide to respond in such a way as you could still choose not to, until you’ve already responded, of course.

How to make unfixated choices

If you want to explore this state as you go about your day, I have three suggestions for you. 

The first is to learn to notice what your awareness is doing, because a collapse in awareness is a clear sign that you are losing the capacity to make a new choice, becoming more like a train that can only run on pre-laid tracks rather than, let’s say, a drone that could go anywhere. If you notice this, first re-expand your awareness by noticing more of the space around you, because this is actually the same move as giving yourself space between stimulus and response.

The second is to notice when you approach a choice with a firm ‘no’, which puts you into the fixated choice mode described above. When you catch yourself doing this, instead of ‘ definitely not’, switch to ‘not yet’. This doesn’t mean that you eventually will say yes, it just means that you’re not resolving firmly on ‘no’. Here I also want to emphasize that ‘not yet’ doesn’t mean not making a decision. The point is to say no in a ‘not yet’ way. 

This is also not meant to be a sneaky route to self-denial. The point of pausing in this unresolved way is not to prevent yourself from saying what you want to say, it’s to give you space to be able to make another choice if you want to. If you still want to say your piece from within that space, then go ahead, just do so with full consciousness.

The third is to notice when you approach a choice with a firm ‘yes’, because this is just a variation of being stuck on a fixed path. When you catch yourself doing this, instead of ‘definitely yes’, switch to ‘maybe’. Again, ‘maybe’ isn’t a sneaky way to say ‘no’. It’s ‘yes in such a way as I could still say no, or do anything else’. 

The state I’m pointing at here can be elusive at first, and there’s a tendency to try too hard. If you’d like to explore this further, I suggest playing with the ideas gently as you go about your days, and put in much less effort than you think might be necessary. Just keep this stuff in the back of your mind and allow it to surface as it wants to. With time, this practice can evolve into a beautiful way of being that can free you from the trap of reactivity as new pathways emerge in front of you.

If you want to dig deeper into making unfixated choices, I teach an affordable self-paced online course on Alexander Technique, from which this skill derives (we call it ‘inhibition’). It’s here if you’d like to check it out. You can also ask me questions on Twitter.

That’s an affiliate link for Every, by the way, and if you’d rather not click that then here’s a non-affiliate link.

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