It happened in an instant. I was out with my dog Dexter. We were passing a house with a couple carrying groceries from car to house. Just as I noticed their front door was propped open, a pit bull terrier literally flew off the stoop making a beeline for Dexter, and that terrier wasn’t wagging his tail! I reacted instantly and instinctively – no thinking took place. 

Sometimes we need to react. Our evolutionary survival made it imperative. It’s hard-wired into us:  when we sense danger, our biological systems automatically put us into a high state of readiness characterized as fight, flight or freeze. 

But we don’t need that animal instinct much anymore. In most of our everyday existence, our survival isn’t threatened. But that doesn’t stop our ever-vigilant brains from assuming there is mortal danger everywhere, triggering that sympathetic nervous system (aka stress). It might be in that curt email from the boss or the unwelcome call from the ex. But reacting, instead of responding, rarely helps us out. We all know that. 

So, is it possible to escape the self-inflicted pains of reactivity? Yes it is. We can choose to respond instead of reacting. But like everything else, it takes practice. 

Responding means thinking before acting. It means disconnecting from the limbic brain, that innate survival mechanism. Ideally, it also means operating “above the line”, which means acting more rationally than emotionally. We serve ourselves much better when we respond instead of react. 

Easier said than done. Our go-go, never-switched-off culture encourages reaction everywhere we turn. A reactive existence is hard to escape, even when we know it doesn’t feel right. So how do we become a responder instead of a reactor? 

It starts by stopping – stop taking things personally. Taking things personally is a huge source of reactivity. Nothing is personal unless we let it be personal. When a fellow motorist makes a rude gesture, I can choose to take it personally and react, or I can choose to wonder what’s causing their bad day. It’s a choice. It’s our choice. There are a million reasons why people act the way they do. They are accountable for their behavior, not you. Nobody can cause you to react without your consent. I will repeat: nothing is personal unless we choose to take it personally.

The second step involves observing your emotions. If you are angry, triggered or otherwise operating “below the line”, then beware. By reacting in the moment, you are more likely to make a mistake and cause yourself harm. Take a breath. Maybe 10. Or 100. Realize almost nothing is urgent. Know that time is on your side and a well thought-out response will always serve you better. Take a day or two if it serves you. And know that no response at all may be a completely legitimate and appropriate option. Who says you must respond to that text or that behavior? 

I heard somewhere that reacting is emotional, responding is emotional intelligence. 

Next time you feel driven to react to some behavior directed at you, write a draft response (to yourself). Sit on it for a day. Then ask yourself, what are the likely consequences of this response? Am I escalating or de-escalating? What type of response (if any) serves me or the situation best? Is it best to just let it go? 

I personally love the S.T.O.P. rule:

  • Stop
  • Take a breath
  • Observe your thoughts (emotions)
  • Process next step

Visualize yourself as a calm, rational responder – in control. When you stop reacting and begin responding instead, your life will immediately and substantially improve. You have everything to gain. 

Next post we will visit the idea of responding from the base of your core values. 

  • What tools can you find or create for yourself to stop taking things personally? 
  • What boundaries or rules can you give yourself to prevent being “a reactor” and evolve into “a responder”? 

With loving kindness, 

Coach Billy