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Reaction Vs Response

The difference between feeling upset and having a sense of well-being

Have you ever become angry or upset with someone and really let them have it only to find out later that you were mistaken in your understanding of what happened?  Maybe you misinterpreted the situation or didn’t have all of the information.  We all have situations like this one where we over-react.  In the heat of the moment, it seems as if there is no way to have a moment to stop and consider the situation.  The anger, hurt or fear is so immediate and comes up so quickly, it almost feels like there is no choice but to act.  I suggest there actually is a choice, an opportunity to develop the ability to have one of these intense feelings and still pause long enough to be able to RESPOND.  Which may mean to ask another question, consider another possibility or simply speak directly about your feelings without using harsh words or actions that you will later regret.

“Your responsibility is to change yourself, not to change other people. It’s your responsibility to decide what you are going to do when a difficult emotion comes up in you – such as fear, hatred, repulsion, judgment or a magnetic attraction to food, alcohol, sex, or gambling. What are you going to do? Are you going to react, which means act the same way that you have in the past, or are you going to respond, which means choose consciously to act instead from the healthiest, most grounded, loving part of your personality that you can reach for in the moment?”    GARY ZUKOV, author: The Seat of the Soul

I found this quote while researching relationships and it reminded me of the critical difference between these two ways of interacting with other people and situations.

Teenagers are especially good at providing the opportunity to examine the differences between these two concepts.  I noticed the tension between these two experiences this morning while out walking with a good friend of mine.  She was telling me an issue she was having with one of her children, ignoring her setting limits and seemingly intentionally doing the opposite of what was being asked.  The situation was infuriating and my friend described that “it drove her nuts”.   My own teen tells me with a voice full of disdain that my request to fold the sheets is “ridiculous”.  These replies and actions can bring out deep and immediate anger or frustration causing us to want to strike out with words or threats.  And we may feel justified by our reactions  due to another’s behavior or harsh words.  However, as Zukov points out, reactions are reflexive, predictable and occur in immediate response to a strong emotion, and do not consider “what is best” or “how can I be truly effective”.

I used to take pride in being able to offer a snappy, smart-ass come back to anyone I thought might be challenging me in someway.  Outwardly it was humorous and I developed a reputation for being feisty and able to take care of myself.  Inwardly,  it was a defense against letting people get too close and getting hurt.  It also became a habit and a hurtful one at that.  I couldn’t let anyone get close and I often felt alone. I had become trapped behind my snappy armor.  At the time I didn’t know how to tolerate my fear of being hurt or how to emotionally take care of myself enough to allow greater intimacy in my relationships.

Another example of reaction is bit subtler and it occurs in the way react to OURSELVES.  How many times have we berated ourselves internally for making mistakes or being late or doing something that caused us embarrassment?   We start an entire critical dialogue based on the incident in question. Again this barrage of criticism is a reaction to an arising emotion very often fear or anger or embarrassment.

To move from reaction to response is a process that takes time, patience, reassurance, presence and practice.  It took time in therapy for me to become aware that fear was behind my need to protect myself with verbal sparring matches. To learn that it started in early adolescence helped me understand how long I had been making use of this defensive reaction.  I needed patience with myself as I knew I wanted to change, and I often didn’t.  Once I recognized my fear, I developed ways to reassure myself, stopped criticizing and started paying more attention to just the feelings.  I also added meditation and mindfulness practices that increased my ability to stay more present with my intense emotions without having to DO anything.   I continue to react from time to time but I am responding more often and that has improved my relationships.

So, when my teen tells me disdainfully that “I am ridiculous”  I can say, “hmmmm, I can appreciate you do not want to do what I am asking, however, I need you to do it anyway, I do not  appreciate your tone and if it continues much further I will take other actions.”  I can keep moving and ignore the grumbling that follows.


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