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2 Keys to Responsible Reactivity

If you could just wish reactivity away, you probably would. Unfortunately it's not that easy. Reactivity comes when you least expect it. It doesn't help you meet your needs or the needs of others. The one thing you can do is build a responsible relationship to it.  Reactivity will still come up of course, but it doesn't have to make a mess every time it does.

Two keys to developing a responsible relationship to reactivity are seeing it clearly for what it is and recognizing that no one else is responsible for your reactivity.  Let's start with seeing reactivity for what it is.

Reactivity, as I am defining it, is the misperception of threat to one or more needs accompanied by the sudden arising of fear, hurt, and/or grief that is related to past events.  It's helpful to understand this definition and recognize the signs of reactivity as they arise so that you are not fooled by your own body sensations, thoughts, impulses, etc. Once you name something for what it is, you cannot be fooled by it; you cannot go into the "trance" of reactivity.  You can find a short list of signs and symptoms of reactivity in my article here.  However, what's most important is that you make your own list of reactive symptoms.   Every time you are reactive, you have an opportunity to study how it came about, what the signs and symptoms were that you didn't recognize, and which ones you did recognize.  If you commit to taking 10 minutes for reflection on reactivity everyday for one month, you will find a whole new level of groundedness in the midst of a reactivity.   Here are some categories of experience you might consider reflecting on during those 10 minutes: body sensations, emotions, energy, impulses, thoughts, behavior, beliefs, posture, facial expression, and the needs you perceive to be threatened.

The second key to cultivating a responsible relationship with reactivity is to get firmly rooted in the truth that no one else is responsible for it. First, this means separating the feeling and need related to the present moment situation from reactivity. At first glance this may seem like an impossible task. In your experience everything seems to happen at once and can be quite overwhelming. But once you start to get familiar with the reactive symptoms you most often experience, you will find yourself recognizing them quickly.   A popular phrase that some find helpful is: "what's hysterical is historical".   When you start become skillful at separating reactivity from present moment feelings and needs, you may notice some of the following changes:

  • You retain access to your skills

  • You can make a neutral observation about what's happening

  • You are able to separate your interpretations and guesses about what's going on with the other person from what actually happened.

  • You are able to get curious about the situation and others involved.

  • You are able to respect another's "no" to your request.

  • You are able to move forward to negotiate needs or meet your needs in a new way.

  • You are able to take a time-out or respect another's request for a time-out without harsh speech or harmful action.

  • You are able to set a boundary without criticizing another or justifying your actions.

When you start to have the experience of separating present moment feelings and needs from reactivity, the most fundamental thing you may notice is how much more power you have to create what truly works for you. Blaming others for your reactivity is actually an incredible disempowerment. From the perspective of blame, at any moment someone could do something to trigger you and you have no control over that.  Once you fully accept that reactivity arises out of a need for healing past pain, you are able to act on your own behalf.  You are able to pursue the healing and support you need.

What about those moments when someone says something knowing full well that it will trigger your past pain?  Are those moments examples of someone else being responsible for your reactivity? No they are not. It may be helpful to think of it in this way.   If you light a match and drop it into a pond of water, no fire will alight.  In other words, when you don't have unresolved pain around something, you are like cool water.   Someone could say something rude regarding a particular topic, but it doesn't spark reactivity in you.

When your partner or someone close to you is caught in their own reactivity its like they are on fire and in that deluded state they imagine that if you were on fire too they might somehow feel better.   So they toss a lit match towards a place in you that they know is "gasoline" - a place of unhealed pain.   They say something like, "I can see why your last partner cheated on you!"   Suddenly you are both on fire with reactivity.

Being responsible for your reactivity doesn't mean you wouldn't set boundaries around behavior like this.  In fact, setting boundaries with people who toss their own reactivity in your direction is an important part of being responsible for your reactivity.  Of course, there are numerous ways to take responsibility for your reactivity, more than we can get to in this format.  The most important thing is simply to begin with your reflection practice to help you become intimately familiar with how reactivity shows up in you.

As you become more subtle in your practice of recognizing reactivity, you will start to notice that it doesn't always show up with big emotions and drama.  You will see that what you have been calling your "personality" is, at least in part, a set of reactive filters through which you view the world.   When you see these for what they are and how they keep you from being the fully alive and engaged person you want to be, they will naturally drop away.  You will experience a profound sense of freedom, the freedom to live in truth and love.


Take a moment now to begin your practice.  Consider the day ahead and notice if you feel an extra bit of tension around any part of your day.  Take another minute with that part of the day and rest your attention on your body noticing if any signs of reactivity are present.  Name what you notice and bring compassion and acceptance by simply saying to yourself, "It's okay for reactivity to be here."


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