Updated: Feb 8
“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.” – Viktor Frankl
When I first studied existential therapy in graduate school, it resonated deeply with me. It was a breath of fresh air after slogging through stodgy psychoanalytic theories and crisp, soulless cognitive and behavioral theories. The idea that humans primarily seek not pleasure, but meaning—that it is meaning that brings us true happiness—felt stunning in its novelty and yet instantly familiar. Of course, I thought. That’s what I’m searching for right now in this program: a way to make my life mean something.
Long before I knew what it was actually like to practice therapy with real clients, including dealing with insurance companies, treatment plans, and the need for diagnoses and trackable progress, I toyed with becoming an existential therapist. I wanted to spend all day talking to people about the meaning of life, helping them find their one true purpose in life, guiding them toward the satisfaction of significance. But most people don’t come to therapy because they’re trying to find their purpose in life. Most people come to therapy because they’re in pain. And when we’re in pain, meaning is often the farthest thing from our minds. We just want to stop hurting.
There is, perhaps, one exception.
For those of us who reach points in our life when we realize that the pain is never going to end—a chronic illness, a terminal diagnosis, a stillbirth, the loss of a loved one—then meaning becomes paramount. It’s all that’s left. If I don’t get to stop suffering, then I will find a way to make my suffering mean something. I will not suffer in vain. I will find purpose in this, even if I have to make it myself.
But for most people most of the time, the search for meaning only begins when the pain has receded enough to be bearable.
Let’s talk about values and yucky feelings.
Mostly, I don’t talk about “existential issues” with my clients like I once thought I would. But I still find myself working with purpose and meaning on a daily basis. The way it often enters sessions now is through a discussion of personal values. Most of my clients have probably heard me talk about “living in alignment with your values,” or—a reason many folks find themselves in therapy, whether they can put their finger on it or not—“living out of alignment with your values.” This living out of alignment with our values often results in anxiety, depression, guilt, irritability, dissatisfaction, or just a general sort of yucky feeling. (Yes, that’s the clinical term: yucky feeling.)
Are you a person who values honesty, and yet you just told a lie? Yuck. Is generosity important to you, but you just spent the entire red light ignoring the homeless woman an arm’s length outside your car window? Yuck. Or, maybe, you just indulged in some petty passive-aggression with your partner because you were angry, and now you feel, well…yuck. And you don’t know why.
It might be because you value communication and connection, and you just chose the opposite. That yuck feeling is so, so important. It tells you where your values are by letting you know when you’ve turned away from them.
The truth is, most of us have spent little time in our lives consciously considering what our values are. Initial awareness of values might sometimes be an eloquent journal entry or an existential experience where you finally decide what you want your life to be about, but more commonly, it’s just that yucky feeling telling you something is off. If we dig down to the bottom of why we feel yucky, we often find out what’s deeply important to us by identifying what’s missing.
Our values are what shape our lives—or at least, they are what we want to shape our lives. In reality, even those of us who have a conscious sense of what we value in life and the person we want to be often get stuck reacting to scenarios with anger, fear, or shame. These reactions take us further from our values, creating more misalignment with our core selves and—yes, you guessed it—more yuckiness.
So how do we start living out our values instead of getting stuck in anger, fear, or shame?
The answer is cultivating responsiveness instead of reactivity. Victor Frankl knew this, as long ago as 1946. But what he probably didn’t know? There is actually science behind this.
Our brains are made up of neurons, linked together in a multitude of synapses, through which signals pass at dizzying speeds in an almost endless array of possibilities in thought, experience, and behavior. As neuroscientists commonly put it, neurons that fire together wire together. The more often thoughts or behaviors are repeated, the quicker those signals pass along the neurons that create those patterns. Over time, the process of myelination—think of it as a sort of neurological asphalt, paving a well-used path—insulates these neural pathways to make them more efficient and easier to access. These can become ingrained patterns of thought or behavior—good habits, well-honed skills, healthy responses…or sometimes, negative reactions that, while designed to keep us safe, cause more problems than they solve.
Cultivating mindful awareness allows the brain to change. Our brains are always changing and adapting; neuroplasticity means we never stop learning and it’s never too late to heal. But the state of open, mindful awareness, focused attention, and compassionate self-acceptance actually facilitates growth and flexibility on a neurological level, allowing new neural connections to form and enhancing overall integration. We can fire new sequences of neurons that, over time, will wire together into new patterns of response.
Frankl, writing his theory long before the science caught up, captured it perfectly: mindfulness allows us to create a space where we can start to observe our reactions, understand them, decide if we want them anymore, and eventually, choose a response that aligns with our values. This process doesn’t happen overnight. But each time you choose mindfulness—even if it’s after the fact, as you’re reflecting on whatever mess your reaction created—you are allowing your brain to grow and change in beautiful ways. Each time you choose mindfulness, you are creating new possibilities for your future.
Each time you choose mindfulness, you are becoming more yourself.
So, what does this look like in action?
I’m the mom of a toddler. I get lots and lots of practice, on a daily basis, choosing to respond according to my values rather than getting stuck in my brain’s quick but often unhelpful reactions. A regular occurrence at my house goes something like this: It’s 7:48am, and we’re 10 minutes behind schedule to get out the door on time. I’m wolfing down cereal while packing lunches, and my daughter is picking her cheerios up one at a time with her fingers to put them on her spoon to put them in her mouth. Then, she tries to drink the milk from the bowl. It goes all down her front.
My chest gets tight. My jaw clenches. My hands fly up in frustration. My lips part to snap at her. But then…there is a space. A very small space, but just big enough for a grain of self-awareness to enter my consciousness. Oh, I probably look kind of scary right now. She’s just being a curious toddler. I don’t want to be the kind of mom who yells at my kid for acting in developmentally appropriate ways. And I take a deep breath, lower my hands, and say (with only a slightly strained voice), “Baby, I know you love drinking your cereal milk. It’s pretty yummy, isn’t it? Next time, let Mama help you, okay.”
I don’t always get it right. But when I get it wrong—when I snap, or lose my cool, and then retreat in shame at what a terrible mother I am even though I’m a therapist and I should know better—I can reflect on it, take a deep breath, relax my muscles, and tell myself, It’s okay; now you know how to make a better choice next time. This is mindfulness, too—a little self-awareness mixed with self-compassion. And often, when the next time comes, I can grab hold of just enough space for myself to breathe instead of swear, to remember the kind of parent I want to be, to choose what’s best for my daughter instead of what’s easiest for me. And then I get to respond in a way that reflects my parenting values of connection, teaching, and emotional safety.
And I grow—neurologically and spiritually at the same time. And, little by little, I free myself from reactivity and the pain that goes with it. I become a slightly better human, just a little more in touch with my highest self. And I allow the people around me a little more space to respond, too, since my responsiveness doesn’t spark their own reactive neurological circuits the same way my reactivity would.
This is how we heal. This is how we stop wounding others. This is how we raise children who will make the world better. By creating just a little space.