Simple Interventions for Chronic Reactivity
Chronic reactivity is that way of approaching life that meets some needs at the cost of others. With chronic reactivity, you may find yourself struggling more than is necessary, efforting when there could be ease. You might notice places in which you get stuck; where you tighten, resist, or withdraw.
This kind of reactivity isn't always obvious. You can manage and function in daily life and avoid working with it for years. But at some point, if enough support is available, you will be ready to heal and dissolve a chronic reactive pattern.
In simple terms chronic reactivity refers to a pattern of thinking, perceiving, believing, and behaving that arises in conjunction with the misperception of threat to a particular need. The pattern maintains itself through habit energy and the tragic cycle in which healing around a particular need is blocked by the very same pattern that was created to protect it.
While there is endless subtlety and complexity in reactivity, it's also true that chronic reactive patterns are pretty predictable and recognizable. Chronic reactive patterns typically are referred to through the tragic strategy of labeling or judging others. Here are some common ways that chronic reactive patterns get labeled in everyday language: The loner, the needy one, the control freak, the tough one, the charmer, the people pleaser, the drama queen, and the overachiever.
For each of these patterns there is a perceived threat to a tender need.* Knowing these tender needs helps to inform skillful action in interrupting these patterns and creating new ways of perceiving and relating to life. In addition to knowing the need, knowing the healing response, and the primary reactive behavior helps with transformation. Let's briefly look at each in turn.
For the loner pattern, belonging is usually the tender need. The healing response is anything that acknowledges belonging and offers a welcome. The most obvious behavior in this pattern is withdrawing. Therefore coming forward as soon as the impulse to withdraw comes up is key in beginning to break out of this pattern.
For the pattern referred to as needy, support/nourishment is the tender need. The healing response is anything that helps this person trust and take in support while standing in their own strength. The primary behavior in this pattern is appearing young, endearing, or helpless. Requests made from this pattern are often accompanied by whining or pleading, thus making a request in a neutral voice is a simple way to intervene with this pattern.
For the control-freak pattern, support and collaboration are tender needs. The healing response is anything that offers reassurance around the availability of support and collaboration. The primary behavior in this pattern is to do things alone as though others didn't exist, which is perceived and often enacted as controlling. Therefore, asking for help or recognizing connection with others is helpful for interrupting this pattern.
For the pattern of acting tough and invulnerable, authenticity is the tender need. A healing response is anything that welcomes vulnerability and authentic expression. The primary behavior is to put oneself in a place of power over through taking charge, knowing more (criticizing or giving advice), or even giving more. Interrupting this pattern therefore requires letting go of power over in favor of collaboration and, when it's safe to do so, taking a risk to share vulnerably.
For the charmer pattern, it is the same tender need and healing response as the tough pattern. The primary behavior however, in this pattern, is to match or mimic whatever the environment or other person seems to require, chameleon behaviors. Taking a risk to share a difference or an authentic feeling and need is a step towards interrupting this pattern.
For the people pleasing pattern, autonomy is the tender need. A healing response is anything that affirms and encourages true choice even if it is different from the choices of others present. The primary behavior in this pattern is to defer to others' wishes. Interrupting this pattern could begin by expressing a preference before knowing others' preferences.
For the drama queen/king pattern, being seen/heard and acceptance are the tender needs. The healing response is simply listening to and seeing someone without them having to ask. The primary behavior in this pattern is to intensify by getting louder visually, verbally, or in gestures or actions. This often takes the form of complaining. When this indirect request to be seen (intensifying) is replaced with a direct request to be seen and heard, this pattern can start to change.
For the overachiever pattern, being seen/heard and acceptance are also the tender needs. The healing response is anything that values this person regardless of their achievements or actions. Expressing what you notice about them in simple ways is healing. The primary behavior in this pattern is the pursuit of achievement or excellence. Frequently relaxing body tension and letting the posture sit back is a simple way to interrupt this pattern.
It's important to remember that the primary behaviors in these chronic reactive patterns are not, by themselves, necessarily problematic. It is when they are accompanied by the misperception of threat that they are reactive.
These labels, however, are usually problematic. Assigning yourself or someone else a label, like control freak, blocks compassion and usually triggers more reactivity on both sides. Understanding that someone who tries to control is probably feeling fearful that support won't be there or can't be relied upon, opens the heart. And while you may or may not be able to offer a specific healing response, remaining in your own compassionate heart is in itself a contribution to healing and well-being.
In addition, if you recognize yourself in one of these patterns and decide to try out the practice suggested, it will be effective only if you treat yourself kindly and compassionately in the process. It may be helpful to remember that these patterns were initially adaptive at some point in your life. The fact that they arise now, when they are no longer adaptive, is in no way is a reflection of your worth, your access to wisdom, or the depth of your mindfulness practice. Reactivity is simply a part of being human.
Take a moment now to reflect upon a situation in which you recognized a chronic reactive pattern in yourself or someone else and applied one of the labels listed above. How does guessing at the tender need for yourself or someone else open your heart?
*When particular needs are linked to reactive strategies, I call these "tender needs" as a short-hand, but, of course, the need itself is a universal energy and doesn't shift from person to person. It's the relationship to the need that is tender.