Monday Musings… A Timeout Chair for Adults

A few weeks ago, I was hiking with some friends in a beautiful, hilly area full of lush green trees, that created this wonderful canopy over our heads, protecting us from the rain drops that had begun to fall from the sky.

On this particular hike, as on most of our treks, we talked about a wide variety of topics including: “What are you making for supper tonight?” I think this is frequently on our minds because of the appetite we’re creating from the 25,000 steps and 80 +floors we generally climb. (No joke, these women love to hike!)

So, on this specific Saturday, one of my friends disclosed, while discussing meal options, that she’d really been struggling lately, not giving in to her food cravings. Her weakness - peanut butter 😊 And, then she informed us of her new strategy to stave off this desire.

The cravings chair!

She told us that she had a designated chair in her home, and that when she felt drawn to go into the cupboard or the freezer for a yummy treat she was trying to avoid, she’d force herself to go and sit on the chair. This removed herself physically from the temptation and allowed her time to ponder the consequences of her potential action.

I half joked that she was giving herself a “time out”. And she agreed. Just as a parent who removes their child from the place of disobedience to consider their actions for a designated period of time, this self-enforced separation from the source of temptation served a similar purpose.

The difference – one is reactive (already committed the offense), the other pro-active (now let me think before I do that). I think we all know, especially as adults, that it’s more beneficial for us to think ahead and count the cost, rather than have to ‘pay the piper’, as they say, for the poor choice we made.

And so, I commented on how awesome it would be if we all had an adult timeout chair. I think I’d call it the contemplation chair, to separate it from the punitive intention of the time-out chair.

Now, I thought I was brilliant coming up with the term for a piece of furniture where a person could be mindful, but alas, furniture designers beat me too it. Google it and you’ll see. There’s a contemplation chair that costs $1,680, but before you actually contemplate that that’s out of your price range, there’s free shipping! I don't know about you, but I’d have to do a lot of introspection to make that chair earn it’s keep in my home! And then the other designs I saw, well, quite honestly, they looked pretty uncomfortable. They must’ve been trying to put a pleasant-sounding spin on the original time-out version.

But the idea of an adult timeout makes a lot of sense. Wouldn't you like a specific place where you can go, whenever you are tempted about anything? Your temptation doesn’t have to be about food. It’s simply a great idea to separate yourself to pause and consider things when your heart is saying yes, and your head is saying no. Should I buy X, or do I really need it? Should I commit to X, it sounds fun, but do I really have time for it?

I’m sure you’re like me, and you walk around throughout the day with a zillion thoughts swirling around in your head. And you make decisions on the fly, with little consideration let alone deep contemplation. And then when you commit (eat that food, make that purchase, make that commitment…) you either instantly regret it, or throughout the course of your day, you increasingly feel worse and kick yourself for having caved.

We all need a time out BEFORE we act. There’s great wisdom, in pressing pause, in saying: "I don't need to eat that", “I’ll get back to you about that”; in letting that purchase sit in the online check-out basket. Take time to consider the ‘what-if’s’, and ‘do I really need this” or “do I need to do this”.

The point of the timeout chair, whether for children or adults, is to encourage healthy behaviours and discourage unhealthy ones. Setting oneself apart to think about past or future actions ultimately teaches the value of reflection, increases emotional regulation, and self-control. We should all be striving to have more of that in our lives.

The idea of the timeout chair is credited to Arthur Staats, an American psychologist who, in 1958, as a new parent was looking for an alternative way to discipline his daughter, instead following the cultural norm of spanking.

But what you may not have realized, since it’s likely that so many of you have personally experienced timeout, or have used it yourself on your children, is that Staats never put a specific time limit on how long the child sits. You've likely heard that the child should sit there for one minute per year of their age. So, a two-year-old sits for two minutes, a three-year-old sits for three minutes… Well, let me tell you, sitting in silence, in one position, for 60 seconds is A LONG TIME! Even for an adult. Just try a Pilates class sometime and you’ll know what I mean!

His theory was that whenever the child stopped the undesirable behaviour, timeout was done. In essence, when the child regained control there was no more need to have the child sit out any longer. It’s not the specific length of time that’s important. It’s when peace and good order have been restored internally, in the child’s thoughts and emotions, as well as externally in the child’s world through his or her new choice of action.

This works for an Adult Timeout or Contemplation Chair too. Separate yourself for as long as it takes to reflect, reason, and bring control to the temptations you face, with the goal to maintain peace and good order in your life.

But there’s another misinterpretation of the original premise for the timeout chair. As Dr. Staats daughter, psychiatrist Jennifer Kelley, tells us. There’s no need to repeatedly focus on the poor choices of behaviours. Parents are mistaken if they think they can reason with their child, especially when the child's upset. The best thing is simply to remove them. As she says, the child is fully aware of why he or she is on the timeout chairs because the offense likely just happened. (Plug here for dealing with disruptive behaviour immediately.) When a child is removed from hitting or biting a sibling let’s say, their short-term memory is developed enough to know what they were just doing. Dr. Kelley advises to reward positive behaviours instead, to reinforce good play and, by doing so, those behaviors are the ones most likely to be repeated.

The same goes for adults. Most of you are very aware when you've given in to your desires and had too much cake (or peanut butter), or bought another pair of shoes when you already have too many. Any poor choice you make, especially involving temptation, you regret almost instantly. You don’t need 25 or 35 or even 55 minutes to figure it out (depending on your age). In fact, the older you are, the quicker that realization should be.

And often if somebody tries to reason with you, when you are in the midst of giving in to temptation, well, often that person is met with your emotional backlash of irritation. You see, you’re no different than a two-year or 16-year-old. You are the only one who can convince yourself to stop.

When you do resist temptation, that's the time to celebrate. Resistance is the mindset that you want to intrinsically reward. What this means is that the reward comes from the satisfaction of defeating the forces that are pulling you into poor decisions. They come when you realize that you found the escape route, and that because of that, you have no regrets to live with. Sounds like a good recipe for restoring balance in your life.

So, the next time you're tempted, go into a different space, and take a seat. Contemplate for a moment or two and realize that resistance, though so hard to do, will ultimately reward you with peace.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

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