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Restraining Your Automatic self

Restraining Your Automatic Self      Aboodi Shabi (

“The morning is always wiser than the evening.” – Russian Proverb

What happens to you when someone says something you don’t like? Or when someone upsets you at a meeting, or cuts you up when you are driving? Or when you receive an email just as you are about to stop working for the day? What happens when something that you weren’t planning to buy catches your eye on an online store or in a super-market? What happens when someone asks you to do something that you really don’t have time to do?

It’s all too easy to fall in to reaction – responding from an excited or emotional place – perhaps sending an angry email without thinking about it or buying something you neither want nor need, and then regretting it afterwards, or saying yes to a request and then feeling overwhelmed and over-committed.

Despite our belief that we are independent beings making free choices, it’s clear that most of the time we are our automatic selves – we react to other people and events without thinking.

This isn’t getting any easier either – social media, and the internet in general, makes it even harder to respond rather than to react. For example, a few years ago, a British Labour MP tweeted a photo of some St George’s flags and a white van. The day afterwards, she was forced to resign; the then leader Ed Miliband jumped on the story, and was all over the press, angrily condemning her.

Twitter and online social media make it all too easy to say and post things we soon regret, as several celebrities and politicians have found to their cost. But Miliband’s reaction was interesting, too. Rather than wait for the storm to blow over, as it would inevitably had done, he reacted immediately. In many commentators’ eyes, this made him look weak. But it’s not hard to see that that could have been any of us – under pressure, with people looking to us to see what we might do – it’s a classic leader’s dilemma.

Leaders need to be able to withstand the pressure to react; we need to develop the capacity to respond, even under fire. The world seems to be crazier than ever, and things are both volatile and uncertain. We can wake up to a very different world than the one we faced last night – both in the wider world, but also in our personal and professional lives – and often have to make decisions on the hoof. Even in the more mundane situations we face, for example on the tennis court or when driving, we have to be ready to respond to a tricky shot from our opponent or a dog running out in front of the car. Similarly, if I’m working on a client proposal then I need to be able to not react to every email that comes in while I’m writing it; if I’m on a budget then I need to resist every tempting offer that comes my way.

At these times, nothing helps us more than restraint – restraint of tongue and pen, to stop us saying things we might later regret (perhaps we should add restraint of finger too in this digital age); restraint of impulse, to prevent us buying things we cannot afford or don’t need, or jumping onto the brakes when we are driving and run into a skid, or saying yes to a request when my diary is already too full. That moment of restraint gives us the space to respond – to think about the impact of our communication, or to remember our work or financial priorities and correct our behaviour accordingly. The great pressure to react fast in today’s world means we need to develop and maintain the muscle for sober response.

In a sense, we need to train ourselves to be become more responsive. For example, in my case, I am by nature and upbringing quick to react, and used to lose my temper quickly and frequently, often saying and doing things that hurt me and others. Although I hardly ever lose my temper now (the worst it gets is the occasional outburst of swearing in Arabic at someone who is driving too slowly when I am in a hurry), I do still fall into the trap of reading and replying too quickly to emails, not necessarily saying the wrong thing, but hijacking my own plans to do something else – definitely a work in progress, and a reminder of the need for on-going practice. Re-training our automatic selves is a lifetime’s work.

Some things you might try:

Practice mindfulness at regular intervals through-out the day – even when you don’t think you need to. Daily meditation practice builds, over time, a calmer, more responsive being – someone who is less prone to react under pressure. You could say that it’s a way of training our attention.
One good tip I often use with my clients is to pause after reading and replying to each email, so that you can read and respond to the next one in a more neutral, centred frame of mind;
Take time each day to think about the things that are really important to you – revisiting your priorities in life regularly is a good way to remind ourselves of what we are truly committed to, and to plan our day accordingly.
Practice committing to commit later – if you find yourself automatically saying ‘yes’ (or ‘no’) to things you might later regret, then you can try saying “Let me think about that and come back to you” to give yourself space to think about whether or not you really want to accept or decline the request.
Find a somatic practice to help you develop, and hold, your centre. From my experience of myself and all the people I’ve worked with over the years, nothing works better than building a body that can hold, and more quickly come back to, centre. Examples might include yoga, boxing, tai chi, but it’s worth exploring to find what’s right for you.