One of the things my late father used to repeatedly tell me was how reactionary of a person I was. I am a highly sensitive person and empathetic to what I used to think was a fault and so most interactions would result in a kneejerk reaction from yours truly. I lacked the insight to respond effectively (instead of reacting).
I’m also a sarcastic person, so at times my quick-witted retorts would garner me some positive attention.
A confusing paradigm for a person who relied so heavily on the approval and appraisal of others to feel good about being me.
My need to react felt like something I would never be able to control and it got me into many situations that I didn’t need nor want.
The thing is, all behaviour is a choice. One of the few things we have control over is how we choose to interact with circumstance.
Most of us will react to a situation only to play out how we could have handled it differently. Sometimes for better, others for worse.
If we become aware of what’s happening before we act, behaviour becomes a function of choice rather than a result of an impulse or trigger. You begin to control your world more as opposed to the outside world controlling you.Marshall Goldsmith
There is no overnight solution to switch the way you have been programmed to protect yourself in any given situation. And that’s what a reaction is. It’s a response encoded in our physiological programming — fight or flight — that informs us that we may be in a compromising or dangerous situation.
If you spent your life criticised, or on the receiving end of endless unsolicited opinions about every little thing you do, think, or feel, it is likely that you react in situations rather than respond to them.
What is the difference between a reaction and a response?
A reaction is something that comes from our subconscious programming. It’s learned, rooted, and on autopilot, for the most part. Reactions are impulsive and fail to take in the big picture of what could happen from their outcome. As noted above, they are what your subconscious brain thinks is protecting you from criticism, bullying, or threat. Your subconscious intercepts with a reaction and thwarts off immediate threat. Only, your body can’t differentiate the threat of a blazing fire from the lady who cut in front of you at the DMV. The same chemicals are fired off, and the subconscious mind jumps in to ‘save the day’. It doesn’t care who else it hurts on its path so long as your ego is protected. Most reactions make our day worse, and we often wish we had handled things differently.
A response is a balanced engagement of both the subconscious and conscious mind – meaning it takes into consideration more than your ego. When we respond, we are handling conflict in a way that engages our values while considering those of others.
The good news is – you can take action to shift your reactionary streak into one of a productive responder. As with many things, it will sound simple in theory, but the challenge is in doing the inner work to apply these strategies.
Three tips to respond effectively (instead of reacting)
- Shift away from being a victim or engaging in the victim mentality. The fact that you are here today, reading this means you have survived 100% of everything life has thrown at you. Think about that. You have survived heartbreak, loss, challenge, adversity, rejection, pain, and change. You sat with it and stayed in the game. By its very definition, survival is the state or fact of continuing to exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or challenging circumstances. You are here. You are a survivor. Take your power back. You’re not a victim – you may have suffered some misfortune – but you never let it physically stop you, so, why should your spirit be any different? You’re a divine creator. You’re a survivor. You hold the power of how you choose to respond to the world around you. Learn to understand that things don’t happen TO you they happen FOR you. Appreciate each day you’ve conquered and marvel in the power you have to cultivate inner peace and happiness. Nobody owns that power, but you.
- Learn to set boundaries. I would say many issues in this world stem from a lack of boundaries – be they physical or emotional. Another thing my father used to say was, “If you don’t draw the line, people will never know they’ve crossed it.” Wise, right? I had a significant problem with saying ‘no’ or being honest when I didn’t want to do something. I would often do things out of obligation or fear of letting someone else down by saying no. Even if it compromised my beliefs. Well, naturally, my inability to set those boundaries would lead me to feel a sense of “how dare you” when something I didn’t want to happen would inevitably happen. If I had drawn the line, set the boundary – defined ANY parameters for others to work with, I would have avoided many of those situations I felt compelled to ‘react’ to. There is nothing selfish or unkind about setting personal boundaries. Revisiting number one of this list, you’re a survivor – you know what you do and don’t want. Learn how to take control of what you will allow in your life. Even if it’s, “I don’t answer my phone after 7:30 on weekdays.” Don’t make your life an unnecessary battlefield.
- Learn to wait and reflect. When I started to work on my reacting – and I still struggle, it’s a lifelong skill to hone – my therapist told me to visualise a yield sign. She said, ‘I’m not saying you have to stop and not address something, but if you yield first and check in with how you want to respond, it will make all the difference. There is a tiny window of opportunity not to react, but rather develop a strategy to respond effectively. The yield sign works for me, so use it if you’d like. You could use any visual association. If thinking of kittens when someone or something upsets you helps you ground yourself from letting your emotions take the wheel, go for it. Any amount of time to process a troubling situation will lessen the chance of it causing you – or others – additional, unnecessary hassle.