“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 freedom.” —Viktor Frankl
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I exited the Interstate 240 ramp in Asheville. When I gazed to my left, the driver in a little red car that had been in front flipped me the bird. I was astonished at first then I noticed a flash of anger rise up in me. The anger wanted me to yell obscenities and return the gesture. Instead, I watched that part of me from a dispassionate distance until it calmed down. I haven’t always been able to regulate my emotional reactions (second zingers—the ones with which we impale ourselves) to situations over which I have no control (first zingers—the ones life throws at us). But in this instance, despite the unpleasant encounter, I was able to curb my second zinger of anger, experience less suffering, and continue on my way, enjoying the beautiful autumn afternoon.
Chances are you’ve heard the age-old question, “How is life treating you?” But the real question is, “How are you treating life?” When life throws a curve ball (first zinger), how many of us flip our lids and say or do things we later regret (second zingers)? The first zinger is unpleasant for sure, but the real distress comes from the second zinger reaction that adds insult to injury. All of us have second zingers multiple times a day, but too few of us are resilient enough to regulate them. We often react to life’s inevitable hardships from the automatic fight-or-flight state as if random events are personally threatening—even when they’re not. Think about it. You wouldn’t change lanes on the interstate before checking your rear view mirror. And you wouldn’t shoot a gun and then aim at the target. You would take the time to check out your surroundings and then act.
Another example. Ever had an itch and the more you scratch it, the more it itches? Maybe you can’t do anything about the itch, but you can do something about the scratch. The itch is a first zinger, and the scratch is a second zinger. Suppose you hit your head on a kitchen cabinet. After the first zinger of pain comes the second zinger of judgment: “Ouch! I’m such a klutz!” Or how many times have you been in the middle of an activity that required your full attention when someone interrupts you (first zinger)? Maybe you’re irritated (second zinger). Resilience helps you recognize you’re irritated and cushions you from the irritation so you don’t impale yourself with a second zinger (in this case blow up).
We all encounter hardships, sometimes devastating heartbreak, other times minor annoyances. But what do we do with them? It depends on how resilient we are. Some days it feels like disappointments and letdowns come at us from all angles at lightning speed. Second zingers nibble away at us like death from a million cuts. After a while, it feels like we can’t tolerate one more slash. Statistics say more of us have the stamina to continue to take safety risks after a car crash than to continue after a series of psychological defeats. It takes some practice, but it’s not impossible to learn to act instead of react.
Here’s how. When you notice you’re in an unpleasant emotional state—such as worry, anger, or frustration—try holding it at arm’s length and observing it impartially as a separate part of you. Think of it much as you might observe a blemish on your hand then get curious about where it came from. Instead of pushing away the unpleasant feeling, ignoring it, or steamrolling over it, the key is to acknowledge it with something like, “Hello frustration, I see you’re active today.” This simple recognition relaxes the second zinger so you can face the real hardship—the first zinger—with more clarity and ease. Once you develop the skill to separate first and second zingers, you realize you don’t have to react every time you get zinged. The acronym WAIT is a quick and easy tool to help you bring mindful attention and self-compassion to your second zingers, reduce stress, and build resilience:
Watch what’s going on inside when you’re triggered by an upsetting event (first zinger).
Accept, instead of resist, the first zinger and the internal reactions just as they are.
Invite the activated feelings to calm down and, along with curiosity and compassion, soothe them.
Tell your inner reactions in a mental whisper, “I’m here with you” or “We’ve got this.”
This resilience option is always available when you remember happiness isn’t the absence of upset or adversity but the willingness to embrace it all. When we welcome our second zingers, we don’t have to suffer the effects of them. Practicing WAIT during sudden adversity inhibits the automatic fight-or-flight reaction. It allows us to become mindful of that space between the first and second zinger that neurologist Viktor Frankl described. While in that space, we’re able to choose our actions and respond with the three C’s: calm, curiosity, and compassion. Over time, we grow our resilience as we face life’s hard knocks—no matter how painful, frustrating, big or small—as lessons from which to learn. This growth mindset, coupled with loving-kindness and self-compassion, empowers us to bounce back quicker and higher than we fall with less suffering and more life satisfaction.