Between Stimulus and Response:
You Have the Power to Choose

Written by Rida Tahir on June 06, 2020 (8 minute read)

"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."

Such powerful words!

I came across this idea of space between stimulus and response years ago in Stephen Covey’s book 7 Habits of Highly Effective people. The quote is commonly attributed to Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and a survivor of the holocaust (P.S.: he probably never said these words because the quote appears nowhere in Frankl’s books).

Regardless of the original source, the idea contained in the quote is very powerful. Viktor Frankl did say something similar in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. "

Both of these quotes highlight the same idea i.e. no matter what happens to us, we can always choose our emotional reaction to any situation. The gap between what happens to us (stimulus) and how we react or respond to it (response) is very tiny, but it’s there and it gives us the opportunity to choose how we react in any circumstances.

How Viktor Frankl Survived the Holocaust

Viktor Frankl’s experiences in Nazi’s concentration camps illustrate this idea perfectly.  He was imprisoned in death camps, where his entire family was killed (except his sister). He was naked, alone, tortured and humiliated, but his Nazi captors could not take away his sense of inner peace and freedom. They could do whatever they wanted with his naked body, but they could not control his mind and his thoughts. His identity and self-respect remained intact. He still had “the power to choose” his response. He was able to choose how being held captive in Nazi’s concentration camps was going to affect him.

In his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey wrote,

“They (Nazi captors) had more liberty, more options to choose from in their environment; but he had more freedom, more internal power to exercise his options. He became an inspiration to those around him, even to some of the guards. He helped others find meaning in their suffering and dignity in their prison existence. In the midst of the most degrading circumstances imaginable, Frankl used the human endowment of self-awareness to discover a fundamental principle about the nature of man: Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”

That’s how Viktor Frankl used this “power to choose” and survived the unimaginable horror of the holocaust. He literally lived to tell the tale.

What would YOU do if you were in his place? Most of us, I believe, would die from the suffering or suffer from PTSD for the rest of our lives if we survived such circumstances.

We Don’t Act: We React

How often do we find ourselves reacting to the trivial annoyances of life on an auto-pilot? Too often, I would say.

We get stuck in a traffic jam and react by throwing expletives at the person driving the car in front of us, the traffic police, and the government.

We get cold calls from random companies or marketing agencies and we snap at them, telling them rudely to never call us again (the poor man is only doing his job, for God’s sake).

We order food at home and due to a technical error in the eatery’s website it turns out to be a wrong order or missing something that we were craving, we make sure not only not to tip the delivery guy, but also insult him, as if it’s his fault that our order was mixed up, and then we leave an angry 1-star review on their social media page or send an angry email (I’m guilty of doing this at least once).

In short, in response to most negative situations in our lives, we don’t act; we react. We react as if we have no control over our thoughts and behavior, as if we are programmed robots, as if our automatic response, no matter how rude and inappropriate, is only natural and therefore justified.

Take Back Control

Even though most of our reactions to life circumstances are automatic and mindless, we DO have control over our thoughts and behaviors. We are not programmed robots. We don’t have to respond on auto-pilot. We can be proactive i.e. we can choose our response.

But how, you may ask. Let me tell you.

Whenever something unpleasant or negative happens to you, pause and take the metaphorical step back, remind yourself that you have the freedom and power to choose your response to this situation.

Think of the consequences, the impact of whatever you’re going to say or whatever you’re going to do, on the other person or people. If the potential impact of your words or behavior is negative, change your response. Choose a better, more positive response. It’s really that simple.

In the moments of choice, it’s worth asking ourselves, what’s to be gained?

It’s also okay to be a little selfish and think of your own good, think of the impact of the event and your reaction on your own mental peace. Is it all really worth the trouble? Why disturb your mental peace for something that doesn’t really matter and is not even worth the trouble?

When you react, it means something or someone else is in control. When you act, YOU are in control. Why let circumstances dictate how you feel? Why let circumstances control your thoughts and actions? If you say your boss insulted you, why are you letting his negative behavior control your feelings and behavior and ruin your mood and happiness? If you say that you’re angry and frustrated because of traffic or bad weather, why are you letting it frustrate you?

If someone or something has power over you, or has the power to control you, your thoughts and your actions, it’s because you have given them that power. Why give anything this power and control in the first place?  

Take it back.

The moment you CHOOSE to take that power from people or circumstances is the moment they lose power over you and you feel liberated.

                                     * * * * * * * *

Imagine that your spouse accidentally drops your phone on the floor and the screen is cracked and you have important calls to make.

In normal circumstances, your immediate reaction would be to feel angry and you might yell at your spouse, saying things like “Why can’t you be more careful? You’re always breaking things. You are so clumsy and careless. Why did you even touch my phone? What am I going to do now?” etc.

But you don’t have to do this; you don’t have to say these things, because you have the power to choose your response. Even if your anger is natural or justified, you don’t have to respond in anger and embarrass and hurt your spouse. You can be proactive and choose a better, more positive response, that won’t embarrass your spouse any more than he/she already is.

There are so many ways to do this. For example, instead of yelling, you can choose to be all cool and casual about it and say something like, “It’s okay. We’ll get it repaired.”

Or you can make a polite request and say, “Can you get it fixed for me tomorrow? I have important calls to make”.

You could even try adding a little bit of humor to lighten up the situation because your spouse must be mortified, and say something like “I guess now it’s time to remove the password from your phone because I have to make some important calls. I promise I won’t peep into your chats”.

Your Response Can Change Everything

Trust me, your response can change everything, your feelings and emotions, how the other person feels, and the atmosphere in general. Your response in a negative situation has the power to change the situation itself, as well as its potential impact.

The parable of potatoes, eggs and coffee also illustrates this idea beautifully i.e. how you can change the environment with your response to the situation (just like coffee transforms itself as well as the environment).

This applies equally to major life-changing events such as death of a loved one, divorce, loss of job, terminal illness, natural disaster, disability, etc. If we are mindful of the space between stimulus and response and consciously choose our response, we can recover from the trauma and bounce back to normal life quickly and come out stronger and wiser than before.

When hard times hit us, we have the choice to let the life-changing event change our lives for the better OR for the worse.


Next time when you are angry or frustrated about something negative that has happened to you, pause and remind yourself of this space between stimulus and response. Remind yourself that you have the power to choose. Remind yourself that you can be proactive and choose a better, more positive response.

Remember, your freedom (from all your problems) lies within YOUR response. So choose wisely. I know it’s easier said than done. But trust me, once you decide to use your POWER TO CHOOSE, miracles start happening.