Watching a small child’s response and shift in attitude when given a “time out” brought home a valuable lesson about sitting quietly and reflecting on our actions. Something as simple as “taking a break” from an argument or a strong emotional reaction can have powerful benefits for ourselves and our relationships.
When we give a child a time out, we want them to think about their action or behavior and the resulting consequence. We want to increase their awareness so that the next time they contemplate running with scissors, they remember it’s a bad idea with some pretty painful consequences like getting injured.
So we give the child some time alone to calm down, to reflect all by himself. Then when the time out is over, we scoop him up, look him in the eyes, have a conversation about what we’ve learned and send him on his way with a reassuring hug.
A self-imposed adult time out is just the ticket when we feel our emotions getting out of control. Its a far better use of our personal energy than overreacting and making matters worse.
On occasion, I’m caught off guard by another’s anger, accusation or adult melt down. I’m working on not getting sucked into another’s emotional vortex and to remain grounded. In my search to become better at navigating these situations, I read The Art of Communication by Thich Nhat Hanh (Buddhist Zen Master and peace activist).
Thich Nhat Hahn offers clear examples of how we judge others and situations, how we focus on our own needs at the expense of others, and how we habitually respond when triggered by events without a thought to long lasting, hurtful consequences.
He stresses the importance of becoming mindful of our habit energies.
Admittedly this takes discipline and requires personal courage. Give yourself a time out — become aware of your emotions, reactions and patterns of behavior especially when you are in a confrontation.
- The first step is calming yourself down. Mindful breathing is so beneficial for this. Three deep cleansing breaths will lower your heart rate and clear your mind.
- The second step is reflecting. Treat yourself like a compassionate friend and explore your emotions without judgement.
- The third step is assessing if you are conducting yourself in a respectful, productive manner
Taking your own feelings out of the equation and focusing on the other person’s perspective, you may discover that they have a misperception or have kept something bottled up for far too long. Rather than adding fuel to the fire by blindly reacting on our own emotions, we can listen with empathy and learn. Thich That Hahn offers a refreshing concept to employ — Beginning Anew:
When a difficulty arises in our relationships and one of us feels resentment or hurt, a good practice to try is called beginning anew. To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves — our past actions, speech and thoughts — and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationship with others.
Beginning anew helps us develop our kind speech and compassionate listening because it is a practice of recognition and appreciation of the positive elements of another person. Recognizing others’ positive traits allows us to see our own good qualities. Along with these good traits, we each have areas of weakness, such as talking out of anger or being caught in our misperceptions. As in a garden when we “water the flowers” of loving kindness and compassion in each other, we also take energy away from the weeds of anger, jealousy and misperception.
We can practice beginning anew every day by expressing our appreciation to the people we care about and apologizing right away when we do or say something that hurts them. We can also politely let others know when we have been hurt.
— An excerpt from The Art of Communication (Chapter 9)
Here’s what I have noticed since I’ve become more of an observer and less of an active participant in some stressful situations. I’m a better listener and I have more empathy for what another is feeling. Because I’m more thoughtful and composed in my responses and reactions, the tension often eases more quickly. I’m following the advice cited in the Art of Communication and being patient, waiting for several days, before revisiting a situation and providing clarity to change a misperception.
Undoubtedly the most noticeable difference for me personally is that I am no longer jumping in to rescue or resolve. As a result, others face the consequences of their own negative behaviors and may even reach out for support to change unproductive habits.
Giving ourselves a “time out” just might be the best gift we give ourselves.