Are you prone to reacting before thinking? – firing off what’s in your head before considering the impact or acting impulsively only to regret it later. Do your fingers get a little trigger happy; a mind of their own, when commenting or texting and could the expression ‘putting your foot in it’ apply a bit too often for comfort?
Before I started my training to become a counsellor, I was always super quick to jump in to conversations. A big part of that was nervousness- my husband says I go in to verbal overdrive when nervous, I still have a tendency to be like a one person stage show when meeting new people ( I come all over a bit jazz hands) but I was also a fixer. I’d want to help, solve, fix things for people, so I’d jump in with suggestions or advice, trying to help or make the other person feel better. The problem with this was I wasn’t truly listening to them or letting draw their own conclusions and let’s be honest it was a lot about making myself feel useful and worthy. Back then, I certainly did a whole lot more talking than I did listening.
I can still clearly remember a conversation I had with a fellow student about 2 years into our training, they turned to me and said “I never used to like you much, because you were always talking over people” ” You’ve really changed, you’re so much better” Jeez!, don’t hold back dear! Luckily by this stage of the training I was kind of used to these brutal truths. Although, I admit, it did sting, after-all nobody really likes to hear that kind of thing, but you know what? She was right. I DID used to talk over people- not to be intentionally dismissive, although, I’m sure it often seemed that way, but because of, well, because of lots of reasons…
- Trying to prove myself
- My fixer/rescuer personality
- Previous history of not being ‘heard’
- Trying to people please.
- Reacting instead of responding
- Overcome by showy off-ness (so not a word)
There’s probably a few more reasons as to why my mouth was faster on the draw than a cowboy at the O.K Corral, and while you might be thinking, well, I don’t talk over folks so I’m not the reactive type – talking over is just one form of reactive behaviour. If you’re prone to blurting out stuff, impulsiveness and acting without thinking then yep, afraid so, there’s some reacting going on there. If you’ve never given much thought as to why you’re so quick with those knee jerk reactions then some of those things on my motormouth my list might just resonate.
Back in our ancestral days it was probably useful to go with reacting before thinking, you know, diving out the way of a woolly mammoth and that kind of shit, needed a pretty quick reaction time, but in today’s world unless a lightening reaction time is needed – like bagging the last chocolate, it can be more useful to learn to to pause and respond.
Obviously, when faced with a dangerous situation you’re going to need that instinctive reaction, but if we use it all the time, in our everyday situations, life becomes a bit more of a bumpy ride than we need it to be; sometimes we’re so used to doing it we don’t even registering the turbulence it’s causing.
A lot reactive behaviour tends to come from an emotional place rather than an instinctual reaction to danger and this is the type we want to look at working on. But before we take a look at that, it”s useful to know what we mean actually mean by reacting and responding.
Reaction versus Response
Before I was taught through my training how to be more mindful of myself and others, I didn’t even think there was any difference between a reaction and a response. I just assumed they were one and the same; words that were interchangeable. However, in practice they are not at all alike, so, what is the difference?
When we react to a situation we are acting with little conscious thought, that ‘knee jerk’ reaction. These are instinctive physical reactions (think hot, cold, trauma etc.) There’s not much we can do to change those types of reactions and to be honest in dangerous situations we wouldn’t want to anyway.
Then there is emotionally driven reactions, those that take place with no real thought of the impact or consequences. Again often knee-jerk in nature, These reactions can be explosive and an automatic defensive mechanism designed to protect us from a perceived ‘threat’- situations that cause us to feel criticised, angered etc. When an emotional reaction to a situation or interaction takes place, we often find ourselves acting before we’ve considered our behaviour.
This when we can get those undesirable reactions- you know those where you behave like a complete bitch or have an almighty hissy fit. These are often the result of stressors, although, speaking from personal experience I’d wager hormones are definite factor too! The more stressed (or hormonal) or under threat we feel, the more likely something less than endearing or unfiltered will slip out of our mouths – oh and there’s also our ego, it also likes to get in on the whole reaction party. There is of course a flip side to this – happy reactions, jumping with excitement or crying tears of joy are most definitely reactions worth welcoming into our lives. We want to hang on to those; life would be simply too dull without those type of vibe raising reactions.
When we respond our brain is much more engaged in the process, we can create a tiny window of space that gives us a brief opportunity (all that we need) to interpret the situation and respond in a more measured and considered way. Although the unconscious mind can still drive responses, there is the opportunity to make a choice; a point where we can make a conscious decision , if you like, assess which way we are going jump. This has the advantage of allowing us to take a mental step back to consider the implications of our words and action, and decide which course of action would be the best all round. This is a much healthier place for us to be and we can get there by learning to press the pause button and flip a reaction into a response.
How to press that pause button.
The pause button is about mentally stopping yourself just before you react, creating a window of opportunity for you to consider your options and make a decision that will lead to the best outcome.
Next time you’re faced with a potential reactive situation, try these tricks to help you kerb it.
- Hit the button- Mentally tell yourself you’re hitting pause, count backwards from 5 and create the space to assess where you’re at.
- Options– Remember that you always have a choice in how you’re going to handle a situation.
- Check-in- Where are you reacting from? What emotions are you feeling? Then ask -Is this the best place to for me to react from?
- Time check- Ask yourself how will I feel about my reaction in 5 mins, later today, tomorrow, a week etc.
- Bigger picture– What will be the outcome of my reaction? Is it going to help or hinder me?, in my relationships, my work, my personal growth.
- Apply a filter– Is your response necessary? Is it a true reflection of what you’re really thinking? or just an emotional reaction, Is it helpful to you or to others?
Of course, everyone on this planet loses their cool or jumps in with both feet, but by becoming more aware of how we’re being triggered by a situation, we can start to recognise when we’re reacting v’s responding. In the ‘heat of the moment’ if we’re feeling angry, hurt or defensive, it can be super hard to take a step back, but going through life in reaction mode can result in tensions within our relationships, feeling crappy about ourselves or regretful of our behaviour.
Once we get into the habit of practicing using the pause button to replace those automatic reactions, it becomes easier and easier to switch to this mode in our everyday life situations.
Believe me, I know this method is not fool proof, there have been many ‘post training’ moments for me, where I’ve had to back-track, eat humble pie or apologise for my words or actions, but I can tell you, that when you do manage to hit pause and respond in a more becoming manner, it feels empowering.- You feel far more in control of yourself and aware of the impact of your words and behaviour, in my experience this leads to a much more harmonious life!
In what situations can you try to be less reactive? let me know in the comments