Have you ever said or done something that the moment you let it out you wished you could take it back? A lot of us live with a lot of regret along this line … because you simply can’t take back things you’ve said or done that might have been hurtful or disrespectful to others. And our human tendency is to react quickly when our egos are threatened.
So many of us do it regularly, in fact, that Google has added a feature to Gmail called “Undo Send.” Once you hit “Send” Gmail holds the email for five seconds, during which time you can stop the email from going out.
Wouldn’t it be great if in the rest of our lives we had the option to simply hit an “Undo Send” button? Unfortunately, once we’ve spoken the word or committed the act, it can’t be retrieved. Our words or actions hang out there creating consequences that can’t be erased or undone.
But perhaps there’s another 5 Second option that might prevent the words or behaviors in the first place. The key, in real time, is to avoid the unproductive “Send” in the first place. What would happen if we tried using the 5 second option before we hit Send?
Effective and healthy spirituality is about paying more attention to the way we are present in the world, learning how to live with greater awareness and compassion. Which makes this 5 Second Option a potentially deeply spiritual practice.
Here’s how it works. Peter Bregman, the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, spoke to a friend of his (Joshua Gordon, a Neuroscientist and Assistant Professor at Columbia University) about this issue of why it’s so natural for us to react negatively to a person or circumstance that threatens our egos. And is there anything we can do about it?
Dr Gordon pointed out : “There are direct pathways from sensory stimuli into the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotional response center of the brain,” he explained. “When something unsettling happens in the outside world, it immediately evokes an emotion. But pure raw unadulterated emotion is not the source of your best decisions. So, how do you get beyond the emotion to rational thought? It turns out while there’s a war going on between you and someone else, there’s another war going on, in your brain, between you and yourself. And that quiet little battle is your prefrontal cortex trying to subdue your amygdala. Think of the amygdala as the little red person in your head with the pitchfork saying ‘I say we clobber the guy!’ and think of the prefrontal cortex as the little person dressed in white saying ‘Uhm, maybe it’s not such a great idea to yell back. I mean, he is your client after all.’ The key is cognitive control of the amygdyla by the prefrontal cortex.”
So Bregman asked him how we could help our prefrontal cortex win the war. Dr. Gordon paused for a minute and then answered, “If you take a breath and delay your action, you give the prefrontal cortex time to control the emotional response. Slowing down your breath has a direct calming affect on your brain.”
Which begs the very practical question, how long do we have to stall? How much time does our prefrontal cortex need to overcome our amygdala?
Dr. Gordon’s response: “Not long. A second or two.”
Sounds like Google is onto something with its 5 second “Undo Send” option. Apparently there’s significant biological / physiological / psychological (and dare I add, spiritual) reality to actually being able to overcome our immediate urge to react negatively and aggressively toward someone or something that is threatening our ego and beginning to make us want to attack back. Imagine in the moment choosing to press “pause,” taking a few deep breaths for 5 seconds, and allowing the immediate emotion to drain away even just a bit, so that you can then at least begin the process of trying to respond positively and with no regret later.
Peter Bregman applied the strategy to his recent situation: “When Bob yelled at me in the hall, I took a deep breath and gave my prefrontal cortex a little time to win. I knew there was a misunderstanding and I also knew my relationship with Bob was important. So instead of yelling back, I walked over to him. It only took a few seconds. But that gave us both enough time to become reasonable. Pause. Breathe. Then act.”
I don’t know about you, but for me this 5 Second Option isn’t as easy as it sounds! I find it extremely difficult in practice when I’m facing some deep emotional feelings being stirred up and my buttons are being pushed left and right. Maybe that’s why the great spiritual traditions of the world have developed rituals and disciplines they call spiritual practices. These disciplines and behaviors that are designed to produce greater peace and calm and centeredness in the midst of life’s turmoil take intense practice. Change doesn’t happen over night. Transformation comes as the result of determined discipline to engage in new thinking and new behaviors.
Which also (and most importantly) means you and I need to be patient with ourselves and with others. We need to hold ourselves, including all of our mixed up and all-over-the-board reactions to life, gently. We must give ourselves compassion, too – to honor ourselves as we are with the goodness we have in us that we ultimately want to express and let out more often than we do. Maybe this self-gentleness and self-kindness would empower us to more readily hit the Undo Send button.
What would it look like in your life for you to use the 5 Second Undo Send button? How much practice do you need to make this strategy more of a natural response, your more automatic default mode? Pause. Breathe. Act. I’m going to keep practicing this one. I need it. And living with regret isn’t worth it.
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