Reactive Vows

Have you ever had the feeling that your life isn't quite your own?  Somehow things don't feel quite right, like you're an imposter in your own life. Living from a reactive vow is one way this experience comes about.

Vows are often associated with conscious and momentous decisions.  They are meant to set a course for your life.  

Reactive vows carry the same course setting power, but are usually made in a moment (or a series of moments) of intense reactivity and then buried in the unconscious.  Reactive vows are often made in reaction to a repetitive situation in which you are experiencing pain or watching others experience pain. Reactive vows typically revolve around a core value/universal need and dictate particular behaviors to engage in or completely avoid.

For example, if you grew up watching your father cheat on your mother and experienced all the havoc and pain that came with that, you might have made a reactive vow like this:  "I will never put my family through this. I will always be loyal to my partner." OR "I will never fully trust a partner and will always stay vigilant."  

You can imagine how reactive vows like these can play out in ways that create a whole new kind of difficulty.  In the first example, the reactive loyalty vow could result in the impulse to keep everything happy and harmonious by not communicating unmet needs in the relationship, and thus making the relationship more vulnerable to affairs.  In the second example, the reactive vow to stay vigilant, keeps one from recognizing a partner who is worthy of trust.

Reactive vows can also flip flop from one polar extreme to another.  Let's say you grow up in a chaotic home in which your parents lives are run by addiction and impulsive decisions.  You make a reactive vow to live a life devoted to something meaningful. You choose a highly structured and disciplined life in an attempt to meet the needs for meaning, integrity, and stability.  This reactive vow however isn't as in touch with the underlying needs as it is with how "you should be". Living from a "set of "shoulds" you neglect other needs and lose contact with authenticity.  

Because it is our fundamental human mandate to be fully who we are, these unmet needs, that are systematically excluded by the mandates of the reactive vow, won't stay underground forever.  When some pillar of the life that came from the reactive vow breaks, this break can catapult you to the other pole of your reactive vow. Because the unmet needs have been repressed and possibly shamed for so long, your psyche will have to do a lot of work to justify the change.  Your psyche wants to preserve your sense of self, so it may resort to blaming others. You may find yourself criticizing the life you lead and the people in it. In the worst case scenario, the previously cherished values will be shunned and the new values will receive all your focus.

If these reactive vows are unconscious, how do you find them?  Behaviors that arise from reactive vows usually have one or more of these characteristics:

  • Rigid, black and white thinking

  • Disconnect or dissociation

  • Urgency and anxiety when a particular avenue of behavior is blocked

  • Righteousness

  • Desperation:  a willingness to do certain things at a high cost

  • Flat emotionality

  • Defensiveness around anything relating to the reactive vow

  • Impulsive or secretive behaviors that are attempting to meet the repressed needs

Once you start to uncover a reactive vow, integration and healing is needed.  At the very least, this involves telling your story and receiving empathy for the situation in which the reactive vow was made and allowing space to grieve the unmet needs and the hurt that was experienced by you and others in that situation.

As you are able to integrate and accept all your needs and the experiences that go along with them in both the past and the present, you may want to make conscious non-reactive vows.  Vows that are in alignment with honoring all of you, as well as the living beings around you, and support an experience of authentic thriving. Such vows are living dynamic entities that evolve and change as you do.


For now, set the intention to become aware of your reactive vows.  The next time you are engaged in your contemplative practice, ask yourself to become aware of your reactive vows and wait quietly.  If you continue to ask and wait quietly your subconscious will offer up the information. Adding to this you can use the bulleted list above to direct your attention to parts of your life in which a reactive vow might be in the driver's seat.  As always, do these exercises when you can bring a gentle and compassionate attitude towards your experience as you reflect.