Reactivity versus Responsiveness

It’s a motto handsomely framed on the wall of the private psychiatric clinic where I work:

Don’t give up what you want most for what you want in the moment.

I look at it while I chew an apple in between groups.

What does this even mean?

It probably started as a fridge magnet, one of those exhortations to keep working instead of taking a nap, I muse, something crazy like that. Keep you at the gym, keep you away from that chocolate éclair. I want a beautiful body, but I want pudding too. Kind of thing.

That possible meaning never struck me. And of course it’s not what they intend here, at a hospital dedicated to self-love.

Personally all I see when I look at these words is: Don’t be reactive.

What is Reactivity?

You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know what this means. Put plainly: You punch me, I punch you back. Automatic, knee-jerk. It’s what most of us do all the time, it’s what we did when we were kids.

Reactivity comes from anxiety. Commonly known as fear, or False Evidence Appearing Real. When we’re afraid, expecting the worst around the next corner, we jump into action. It’s a survival thing. Part of this is the wish to be rid of the uncomfortable physical sensation of fear.

I always tell my clients we need to “whale tail” a situation if we want change. We have to do the opposite of what we used to do – because doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, right?

Reactivity is destructive. It’s punitive. Trust me, it hurts you more than it hurts them.

The Pause

There is a bit of an art to this okay. A key, a secret. In the moment when we are triggered, by that punch say, or that nasty email, we ask for Help in our heads. It’s not that we’re reaching for willpower not to react  – when did willpower ever work – see diets and addictions, yeah. It’s that we reach for a power greater than ourselves to do for us what we patently can’t do for ourselves. Hey, if you could have done it for yourself, you would have – a long time ago. Life sends us situations that are beyond our control. And other people’s behaviour is always something we cannot control.


So in this moment we Stop, Observe, and Steer. Reaching for a Higher Self – or Source, or whatever you want to call it – holds us while uncomfortable feelings rush through our bodies. It is essential to feel these physically (Observe) because that’s how we digest emotions. In the body, not in the mind or through talking. Not in a retributive WhatsApp, okay? That’s an attempt at pushing emotion away. So let go of the story in your head. Notice the physical quality of what’s happening in your body. Let it run through you, out your feet and back to love for recycling.

Love, used like that, is the opposite energy of fear.

Choosing a Response

Wait a bit longer. Keep Connecting. Write a draft email if you must, journal all your meanness out. In this time, Higher Power is doing its work. When we leap before we look, we remove the chance for growth both in ourselves and the other person involved. Everyone’s just spewing their feelings out and away from themselves, because of fear. When you do the Body Feeling Exercise, you Benefit From Emotions.

Because guess what you’re doing? You’re tending to your old childhood wounds, which is what a trigger points at. You’re spending compassionate time with your inner child. You’re re-parenting yourself. You’re healing. Yes I know these are clichés but we have to feel to heal because what we resist will persist. And reactivity is resistance.

Don’t worry, you’re not single parenting in this moment. Your Higher Power has got you. Despite the fear, it turns out it’s safe to feel, it takes less than a minute, and no one dies. They should teach us this in school, no? It’s the definition of Emotional Intelligence.

Meantime, the situation is untying itself, the Universe is moving on your behalf, and all sorts of other miracles are happening too.

After some days you may choose your response, or be guided to it – a considered kind of steering which I think of as respond-ability, or responsibility. You have taken responsibility for your trigger, for your feelings. Most of the time it turns out you need to do very little. And let Source do a lot.

Try it, you have nothing to lose.

With deep thanks to Miranda Wannenburgh of Change Matters who taught me these ideas. This material gets presented at a weekly Parent Programme at Optima@Rustenvrede on Thursdays at a very reasonable fee covered by medical aid.

Photo credit Andrew Hewett

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