The Habit to try for March 2019: Restraint

Practicing Restraint

This month’s “habit to try” is perhaps the most challenging of habits that will be introduced this year. Have you ever said such hurtful words to someone that you wish you could retract them? Words can be as lacerating as knife wound. Often, we react rather than respond thoughtfully.  The Cambridge dictionary defines restraint as “determined control over behavior in order to prevent the strong expression of emotion or any violent action”.

Imagine being attacked verbally in person, by email, facebook, instagram or twitter. A reaction would be to fire an insult in return and engage in an exchange that is both nonproductive and fuels the flame. This occurs daily in every variation of social and media outlets. Does this type of expression improve any situation? Practicing restraint requires immense self awareness. First,  we experience the barrage, and feel the body tense under fire. Then, we have to refrain from going into Fight, Flight or Freeze mode which is naturally wired into our brain when we feel threatened. Once we sense this, we have a choice. How to respond? In Yoga philosophy, “niyama” or restraint, is one of the eight tenants. Buddhist and Tao readings advocate responding in a manner that improves harmony. It is so difficult to respond compassionately when we feel attacked.  And, we may not know the best answer. So, we blurt out harmful words just to say something. The act of holding back is incredibly challenging mostly because our ego wants “to win.”

When practicing restraint, it is important to understand that these violent verbal discussions is not about who is right.  It is about behaving in a manner that promotes harmony and fosters peace. Every form of war and physical violence begins with a violent thought in the mind of someone.  We will always have dark thoughts, however, it is our awareness of the black thoughts and what we do with them that matters.

In the space created by pausing in moments, minutes, hours or days, we gain perspective of the situation. Often, other emotions become apparent. The event may elicit emotions of hurt, sadness, shame, guilt, anger or loneliness. Or, maybe it brought up a past sad memory. Physiologically, day after day of fiery emotions increases the cortisol output  that keeps our minds and bodies are on high alert. Over time, blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels remain elevated and the body holds onto the anger manifesting in physical pain. In other words, the brain perceives that we are at war all the time and doesn’t know how to get out of the Fight, Flight or Freeze mode.

So, how do we start to practice restraint?  1. If it is social media, don’t respond. 2) If it is a live  exchange, select a response that is neutral and empathetic. For example, “That must be so difficult” or “I am sorry that you feel that way” and “I don’t have an answer to that at the moment; can I get back to you after I think about it?”  3) Write your response in a journal without sending it to individual. 4) Meditate daily for five minutes to practice centering yourself so you can center yourself quickly in any situation.

Working in healthcare for 33 years, I learned to be “Switzerland”  or be neutral when treating a variety of clients, including criminals. When I owned my practice, I could have easily chosen send certain individuals away who made disparaging comments. But, my job is to is to rehabilitate individuals physically regardless of different beliefs. What I learned is that there is great value in listening to each other without judgement. We  didn’t need to agree with each other to extend kindness.

The daily practice of mindfulness trains our minds so when negative events occur, we  are in a place of equanimity. This practice is ever so challenging and a journey in our life. It takes two or more for a fiery argument. When we make the choice to disengage, it changes the game. If a boxer steps into the ring and doesn’t have an opponent, there is no fight.

“Be the change in the world you wish to see.”  - Mahatma Ghandi