To respond or react, that is the question . . . 4 keys to curbing the intensity of your emotional reactions
Written by Brendan Mooney Psychologist
We can all relate to what it feels like to react to something, for example feeling angry or frustrated at someone, or withdrawing when you feel someone is being loud or obnoxious.
Given we live in an intense world with violence and global unrest to the general cruelty and bullying amongst people we see in everyday life, it is not surprising that we react.
In fact, reacting is natural and reflects to us that there is disharmony that needs to be addressed.
Reactions are an opportunity to learn and grow. The problem is that instead of responding to our initial reactions we tend to not want to deal with them. We start to react to the reaction itself. Sometimes we stay in this secondary reaction well after the incident that triggered our initial reaction has passed.
Our bodies tell us loud and clear when we are trapped in a reaction: our bodies tense, we may feel tightness in our chest or get a horrible feeling in the pit of our stomach. More subtly we may just feel a low-grade level of anxiety or feel drained or exhausted. Have we stopped to consider that staying trapped in a reaction is not a ‘normal part of life’ and that we may actually have a choice in the matter? Bringing more understanding to yourself through observation is key to changing the intensity and duration of your reactions. The following steps may support:
Step One: Recognise you are reacting
If we do not recognise we are reacting, we will likely stay in reaction indefinitely until we do. And no matter how much we can justify being in reaction because of our circumstance or what the other person is doing to us, we must admit that we are nonetheless reacting to it (and that is our responsibility to address).
Reactions have many different faces. There are the obvious reactions like shouting and screaming, but we learn pretty young that this is not very socially acceptable and doesn’t win us many friends or the respect of our colleagues.
In addition to this, most of us are not supported in learning how to deal with our reactions growing up, hence we tend to ‘manage’ and hide them by generally keeping them to ourselves - this is still a reaction, albeit an internal one.
For example, a colleague at work is being particularly rude and aggressive towards you. You react and silently fume but don’t say anything. But how are you when you go home that night? How open do you feel with your partner or family? What food do you eat and how much? What behaviours do you find yourself reaching for to cope with what is being bottled up inside you?
What if you do speak to others about what happened? This is a great first step but this alone won’t necessarily help the reaction shift. If we simply ‘recount stories’ about what happened rather than addressing the underlying issue fuelling the reaction it can cause a kind of ‘issue fatigue’. Whilst we may know and admit we are reacting and we may even complain about it this doesn’t necessarily support us to get to the bottom of it.
Step Two: Choose understanding instead of reaction
Ultimately we all know that it is through bringing love and understanding that we deepen the quality of our relationships.
Once we have recognised that we are reacting, we need to choose to stop reacting. This is part of taking loving responsibility, knowing that reacting is never a healthy way to deal with a situation. It is about seeing that reacting is an opportunity to go deeper within ourselves, to maturely deal with a situation.
In addition, supporting our body, for example going for a gentle walk, can greatly assist in dissolving the tension you are feeling in your body.
Often people try to address a situation whilst still in reaction, but this is a recipe for disaster and will likely result in an escalation of the situation. This is how arguments escalate, as both parties are choosing to not take responsibility to stop reacting before continuing.
One major reason why we ought to stop reacting before attempting to deal with a situation is that when we are in reaction we do not see a situation clearly. Instead our view is tainted by our reaction, for example we see through anger coloured glasses. This stems from the fact that we have been personally disturbed by what is happening, and are therefore unable to clearly understand why it is happening or how to address it.
Step Three: Nominate what you are reacting to and why
Usually when we identify our reactions we tend to focus on what is being ‘done to us’ or what is going on around us. But this is ultimately disempowering.
A vital aspect to honestly nominating why you are reacting is to make no reference to the other person or circumstance you are in. This is a moment to reflect on what is really going on within you.
For example, to take the previous example of the obnoxious work colleague, we might say that we have reacted to their aggression. But is that really true? Their being aggressive is actually their reaction in that moment, it is not ours. We have all witnessed people who do not react under pressure or in situations such as these. So what is it that we have to look at? What is underneath our reaction? For example, what upsets us more than the event itself could be our own seeming reluctance to speak up for ourselves in such circumstances.
Or to take another example: You have been working on a project at work for weeks and spent many overtime hours on it. When you submit it to your boss he doesn’t even say thank you for your work or offer any appreciation for your efforts. Immediately you react because you clock that it is not natural for anyone to be so unappreciative. But what happens next? If you stew on it and become fixated on how you have been treated and can’t shake feeling the injustice then you are no longer responding to that initial reaction and instead you are deep in it. At this point you need to ask why? Unpacking the reaction to your reaction will invariably uncover some undealt hurt you have to deal with.
Did you need the appreciation because you were lacking self-appreciation?
Are you relying on others to appreciate you because you are not doing it for yourself?
The truth is that when we are truly appreciating ourselves we do not need another to validate us.
What would have happened if you had walked into your boss' office in full appreciation of yourself and then handed him/her the project? Would you still have reacted badly or would you have felt so content within yourself that you could have observed the lack of appreciation but remained unshaken? Is it even possible that your boss may have treated you differently and appreciated you because you were already appreciating yourself? The point is, even if the outcome was the same, your experience of it would have been entirely different, for you would have brought understanding to the situation rather than judging things on face value. For example, you might have noticed that your boss was:
Snowed under and wasn’t connecting to you and therefore couldn’t appreciate your work
Lacking in appreciation for themselves and so they were simply incapable of appreciating you
Threatened by you and your work and was deliberately trying to undermine you.
The above are all examples of what you would have gained understanding on if you did not go into the hurt/need for appreciation. In other words, you would have observed that your boss' lack of appreciation was actually not personal to you in any way. Hence by supporting ourselves more and choosing to observe rather than absorb the situation we can bring much more awareness and understanding to our life circumstances.
Step Four: Respond rather than react
Once we truly know why we are reacting and no longer have the reactive symptoms in our body, it becomes clear how to respond to the situation.
Sometimes it will mean bringing it up with the person the reaction occurred with, sometimes it won’t because you will have resolved it within yourself and feel you can move on.
The most important thing to remember is that in each and every day, we have a choice whether to respond or react to life.
Knowing we have a choice is already very empowering, and prevents us from believing we are a victim to life or controlled by our circumstances.
Even if we are not able to change our circumstances on a practical level, we still have a choice whether to respond or react to this.
In this way, we have full choice over the quality of life we will have.
So...in your next moment will you respond or react?
More will be written in an upcoming series of articles on this topic. If you would like to read more be sure to subscribe to receive email updates.
BIOGRAPHY Psychologist Brendan Mooney works with adults, adolescents and children. With a genuine interest in people's well-being, Brendan brings a warmth, practicality and an equality that supports clients to truly address underlying issues and blockages that are preventing them from moving forward.