We’ve all been there. At some point we’ve all had the experience of having a psychological or emotional reaction that was disproportionate to the event that triggered it. We jump to conclusions, fly off the handle, and lose control of our emotional and mental balance.
Unfortunately, the end result is unconscious and mindless choices fueled by our ungoverned passions. These are choices that rarely have a positive or evolutionary outcome and they do not lead to an ideal state of being.
Instead, we want to make choices that are conscious, free from knee-jerk reactivity, and are mindful of the impact they have on our own well-being, as well as the impact they have on others and the larger environment. But how do we get there?
Before we look at a strategy for overcoming our reactivity, let’s examine where this tendency toward overreaction comes from. Biologically speaking, we’re all wired with a set of seven potential ways in which we can respond when our needs aren’t being met. In brief, these responses are …
- Fight or Flight
- Restful Awareness
The Reactive ResponseThe reactive response is closely related to its cousin, the fight or flight response, which is an integral part of our nervous system that protects us from physical harm. In the face of danger or a potential physical threat, we can either run away, or stay and fight.
In a similar manner, the reactive response serves as a protective mechanism. It’s triggered when our ego’s boundaries are crossed, when something that we didn’t want entered our environment, or something we thought was removed from our domain came back into play. Either way, the boundary has been breached, and this causes an emotional reaction designed to defend the ego. As the name implies, we become reactive, (as opposed to reflective) and engage in automatic and habitual behaviors in an attempt to control, manipulate, and coerce others into giving us what we want.
The activation of this response is an insidious process that usually happens beneath the level of our conscious awareness. A casual comment at work, a debate between friends, a mild disagreement, or a passive aggressive comment to a Facebook post can all spark the reactive response. “What did you say to me?” “Did you see the look she gave me?” “How dare you … I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life!” This is the internal dialogue of the reactive response.
In a nutshell, it’s looking for a fight at the slightest ego provocation. It’s a lit match to a powder keg, ready to go. Countless street fights have their roots in the reactive response. The ego constantly wants to be right, to be the best; and any insult, any threat to its authority will be dealt with severely, and physically if necessary.
Hot to Control Your ReactionsOnce you understand the roots of an overreaction, you can rise above it. Since the reactive response is sneaky and lurks in the shadow until activated, try the following steps to become more conscious of the process as it unfolds.
1. Slow Down
Habitual control dramas are activated very quickly and typically without conscious thought. This is a nearly instantaneous process and if you’re not careful, it will pull you into its swirl before you know it. By slowing down, or even stopping what you’re thinking, saying, or doing, you can insert a system reset that will help you see the situation before you go over the reactive waterfall.
As a close relative of the fight-or-flight response, the reactive response follows a similar physiological pattern of overstimulation and stress activation. Your heart rate and blood pressure rise, respiration increases, digestion becomes imbalanced, and countless other processes within the body begin to ramp up for conflict. By taking long, slow, deep breaths you activate the parasympathetic nervous system that helps to down-regulate the stress response and allows you to interrupt the automatic pilot of the reactive response.
3. Expand Your Awareness
Once you slow down and breathe, you create the opportunity to step back and see the bigger picture. Feel what’s going on in your body; notice the runaway carriage of your control drama that is barreling toward the cliff up ahead. Take it all in as a non-judging witness. Step back from the drama, even as it beckons you, and just observe.
4. Intercept the Reaction
With your awareness expanded in the moment that Eckhart Tolle calls “space consciousness,” you’re now poised to catch your reactive behavior before it takes control. This notion of intercepting is the psychological equivalent of Bruce Lee’s martial art of Jeet Kune Do or Way of the Intercepting Fist. In its simplest expression, this art is about beating your opponent to the punch and intercepting his attack with your own.
In this case however, the opponent is your own reactive behavior and you are intercepting your negative thought or reaction before it becomes a full-blown response. Intercepting yourself in this manner takes skill and practice, but most importantly it takes the awareness that the preceding steps help to create. In that space of the present moment, you have all the time you need to catch your reaction before it creates an undesired outcome.
5. Make the Spontaneously Right Choice
Once you’ve intercepted your reactivity, you’re in a place where you can make the most nourishing choice for everyone involved. This is known as “spontaneous right action,” where your thoughts and actions are in accord with nature, and it’s the result of conscious choice making. It’s an ability that flows naturally from being fully aware in the midst of the reactive response, and seeing infinite choices rather than the tunnel vision of your habitual conditioning. From the infinite possibilities comes the most appropriate choice in the moment.
From this viewpoint you can hopefully see your reactions for the ego-based responses they are and utilize this strategy to better navigate toward happier and more fulfilling choices.