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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra McGee

The Pause

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

I remember as a young adult hearing that it was a good idea to count to 10 before responding to a situation or words that were triggering. In the 21st century there has been the admonition to not hold your breath. And this decade has been the years of focusing on your breath. They even have schoolchildren doing this easiest form of meditation. But what else can you do besides count to 10, not hold your breath and focus on your breath to help turn reactions into responses that encourage relationship engagement? That is where The Pause comes in.

In the Internal Family Systems model, what I call The Pause is called The U-Turn. It is an excellent term that clarifies the necessity of going inside and going a different direction, rather than moving forward with whatever forward momentum has been triggered by the events in front of me. I like to call the U-Turn “The Pause” with my clients, however, because it sounds more personal and less likely to get a traffic ticket. Also, there are some aspects to The Pause that are not as well explained by the term U-Turn.

While it is true that a zinger in response to someone’s catty, abusive or assaulting remark always seems to work in rom-coms, rarely is it a good idea in real life. A bit of humor that engages the Other is often helpful, but what to do after that still requires The Pause. And if you are like me, you might need the pause to think up the humor. Of course then there’s the question of timing etc, so unless humor comes naturally to you, I suggest you wait until it comes naturally. I have found personally that several great responses start to come naturally when I practice The Pause daily, hourly, sometimes minute by minute.


The Pause is a metaphor for stopping. It is not freezing, for it need not last more than a few seconds, but it can last a lot longer too. The main point is that it is not going anywhere. It is not even “going inside” yet. It is just stopping. When we stop, we are able to be present. We can take in the moment and listen to all the factors that are in play. We are still looking at the other people and events in our environment. We can hear our inner voices without having to respond to them yet. And we can feel the sensations in our body that have been activated by the present moment we find ourselves in.

The Pause is what happens at the beginning of meditation, it is a sitting down, right where we are, in the seat of our authentic Self (as Gabor Mate calls it), the Self (as IFS calls it), the present-self-energy (my name for it), or the Atman in HIndu Yogic spirituality and many other names for the essential me. When we allow ourselves to be present and our awareness is coming from our present-self-energy there is more chance to be able to observe all the elements of the outside world that are triggering (bringing up past feelings) or crossing boundaries (unacceptable behaviors of others or situations we find ourselves in, in the present). This awareness then gives us the opportunity to respond instead of react.


Practicing The Pause is like lifting weights. Over time The Pause helps our reactions (flabby reactions gravity) transform into mature responses (directed intentional muscle strength). This exercise of strengthening our psyche might take just a few seconds, for a few times over a period of a week or it may take one long hour, numerous times over a period of months or possibly even years. It all depends on each specific occasion that requires The Pause.

When you have stopped with The Pause, the next step is to listen. Sometimes there is only a little whisper of concern that reminds you not to react an eye for an eye when an immature colleague says something critical about your work. Other times there might be a significant change in the behavior of your partner that requires long listening to the different parts of you that feel reactive, before you can feel sure about the best response. So listening is the greatest value of The Pause, after stopping momentum. Listen to the people around you in the situation and related to the situation. Listen to your body. Listen to your feelings. Listen to your thoughts. The exciting thing is that you will become more adept at The Pause as you practice it and you will develop natural responses to specific situations and relationships that are appropriate and mature.


The basic idea of The Pause is simple: Stop. Listen. And sometimes its application is short and pithy and immediately helpful. Other times The Pause is basically an extended meditation that can last for years. It is my understanding of “being present”. “Just be” is another popular way of explaining The Pause. I have spelled it out in detail, so that it is clear exactly what can be done to develop maturity in the psyche.

During my training as a therapist I was in a session role play where I talked about my grief over the loss of a close family relationship. I cried a bit, which was one of the benefits of going to school to be a therapist. Then I asked my “therapist” what he thought was going to help heal that pain. He said, “I think this is it. The sitting and listening to those feelings. Giving them space. Honoring them”. So that is the ultimate result of The Pause. It is the opportunity for our feelings to be heard. Of course our thoughts, judgments, beliefs, external experiences, bodily reactions are also heard. But after those are all acknowledged and thanked for their messages to us, it is when the feelings are simply listened to, accepted, allowed to feel that healing and maturing occurs. However long it takes, once a feeling has felt completely heard and seen, it will integrate into our psyche and allow us to not be stuck in the past, triggered by current events. These heard feelings will also bring a strength to the present that allows us to respond to adverse circumstances or adversaries right now. The Pause is the way we can finally grow up.

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