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Plan for Reactivity

When you or your partner are in the midst of reactivity, all the subtle skills and wisdom you have earned seem far away and inaccessible.  To intervene with reactivity you need a plan so simple and concrete that you could almost carry it out in your sleep. Let's look at how to make one.
First, agree with your partner about a signal that either of you could give when you notice reactivity in your interaction.  You don't have to point a finger at the one who is reactive, just notice it in your interaction or in yourself and give the signal.  A signal could be something like any of the following:

  • Put your hand on your head or heart
  • Say a neutral code word like apples, elephant, giraffe, cookies, etc.
  • Call "pause" and close your eyes to do self-empathy
  • Use something that your body already does when you are reactive like tapping your foot or wringing your hands
  • Say, "I'm reacting, wait a minute."
Once the signal is given, do the next simple and concrete thing that you have planned ahead of time.  This step in the intervention is to help you calm your physiology so that you can make use of all those skills you have worked hard to gain.  It might be something like one of the following:
  • Take three focused deep breaths
  • Lay on the floor or ground and let your body unwind
  • Take a walk (or any form of exercise that helps you to feel your body and find a rhythm)
  • Step outside and listen to the sounds of nature and look up at the sky
  • Drink water and/or eat something nourishing
  • Change your body posture: move, stretch, sit up, relax shoulders and jaw, open your chest
Once your heart rate is normal and your head has de-fuzzed and you have some space from the impulse to blame, attack, shut down, or defend, you are ready to try to engage again in a new way.  A helpful place to start is to first reflect on your own experience with compassion.  You can do so by asking four questions:
  1. What have been telling myself that's triggering a reaction?
  2. What feelings are present?
  3. What needs are up for me?
  4. What would I like to ask for to meet my needs?  Or How would I like to now re-connect with my partner?
After you have taken some time to connect with yourself, ask your partner if he or she is ready to try again.  This is a critical moment.  Before beginning again, state your intention to do something differently, such as, "This time I am just going to hear you first." Or "This time I am going to say my feelings and needs."
An important part of being able to carry out these steps is accepting that reactivity is inevitable.  When you are not shaming yourself or your partner for getting reactive, you can just name what's happening and take responsibility for it.
Reactivity isn't a problem.  It's what you do about it that creates a problem or not.  Over time as you practice intervening with it, and trust yourself to manage it and come back to center, reactivity becomes just another experience like getting a cold or sneezing.
This week practice naming little moments of reactivity and meeting them with acceptance.  When you hear yourself cursing in traffic, for example, practice might sound like this:  "I'm getting reactive.  That's okay.  I'll count three deep breaths as I stop at this stoplight."  Try to engage this practice once every day this week.  No amount of reactivity is too small or too big to practice with.

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