Being reactive could be described as “those things we say and do in response to events and conversations”. Emotions are triggered, we react, and more often than not we have no control over what comes out. Being reactive can be very damaging to relationships (how many times have you said things in the heat of the moment that you regretted later?) and it makes us miserable, yet no one seems immune.
So where does this behavior come from? What fuels it? And more importantly, how do we take control?
A few years back, when my daughter was 17, I realized that I had to do something about the way I communicated with her. You see, I was raised in a pretty strict environment where disobedience was met with severe punishment and I was having a really tough time letting her be without feeling exasperated. She was under the impression that she was old enough to do whatever she wanted and I resented what I perceived as a lack of respect. I would ask her politely to do something, nag, demand and yell with no effect whatsoever. Every screaming match would leave us exhausted, resentful and hurt. This went on for years, poor kid.
But things took a turn for the better a few weeks after I started practicing progressive body relaxation at the beginning of my self-discovery journey. One day, after yet another “fight”, I realized what was coming out my mouth and I froze. I was treating my daughter the same way I had been treated as a child. I was repeating the same pattern I had sworn I would never repeat. That night, just before going to sleep, I asked for help: “Dear Lord and Lady please help me understand the reason behind my outbursts and help me find a way to react differently”. This is what was shown to me.
Reactive behavior is tightly linked to memories (see the Building Memories article for more details). We experience an event that generates emotions. We then store the emotions in our body and create a physical response to help us deal with these unpleasant sensations. If that reaction somehow alleviates our discomfort or make us feel safer, we store it for later use. Overtime it just becomes an automatic defense mechanism we turn on every time the same emotion is triggered (regardless of the situation).
Understanding how “reactivity” works helped me realize that my daughter’s “attitude” was triggering the feeling of powerlessness I had experienced as a child. Anger was the only way I knew how to answer it (my way to take back control). Once I realized how my inability to control the situation made me feel, I could look at the situation with a cool head. With my feelings no longer running the show, I was able to discover my real concerns and address them in a way that my daughter could relate and respond to. And as a result, our relationship improved dramatically.
Understanding reactive impulses is an important tool in our self-growth kit because it gives us choice back. As we learn to disengage from our defense mechanism, we reconnect to our values. Once we are no longer manipulated by old feelings, we learn to experience events for what they are instead of what we perceive them to be. We are free to act differently to get the result we really want. But more importantly maybe, debunking reactive responses gives us a chance to truly appreciate life and the people around us.
Training ourselves to “see it coming” is easier than you think. The trick is too slowly build awareness into our daily activities to get us in the habit of paying attention to the moment. Over time, our ability to remain present increases and we become more and more aware of our thoughts and feelings.
- next time you do the dishes, focus on what you are doing (the temperature of the water, the color of the bubble, the smell of the soap).
- Try to engage as many senses as possible to get immerse in the experience.
- Don’t worry if you catch yourself in the middle of a thought…just bring your awareness back to the moment.
Much love: Sandrine
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