Don't let other people control your mood: reacting vs. responding
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- Jon, December 2016
note: visit "Your inner narrative" to find out about awareness-based behavior therapy, and how to apply what you learn in this article to your daily life.
That person pissed me off!
We've all been in situations where someone irritates us or makes us angry.
For example, someone cuts you off in traffic. What do you do? Reactions range from saying something under your breath, to yelling, honking, and making rude hand gestures.
The issue is, how you react can affect your state of being for some time afterwards. I'm sure you can recall a situation that caused you to become lost in thoughts and emotions, leading to a reaction that subsequently dictated your mood for hours (maybe even days).
There's a question you can ask that shines light on this issue: Did you have a bad day, or did you have a few bad moments that you dwelled on for the entire day?
Back to our traffic example - someone cutting you off may result in the following:
Examples aren't relegated to road rage - daily life is full of them.
Maybe a significant other, friend, or acquaintance said something that "rubbed you the wrong way." Or, perhaps someone was purposefully rude to you. Maybe you were treated unfairly by a co-worker or random stranger!
We all encounter these situations on a regular basis. And, much to our own detriment, most of us let them affect our outlook on life more than (and longer than) we should. We let them influence our communication with others, our decisions and actions, our productivity, and - ultimately - our happiness and well-being.
The ironic thing is, the person who cut you off in traffic, was rude to you, or said something that offended you will usually go about their day oblivious to the fact that they are controlling everything about your day.
Reacting vs. responding
Reacting is when you let thoughts and emotions take over, and you get lost in the compulsive mental noise that ensues. The results are the same old cliches:
It's the easy path, and there is always someone (or something) to blame for your behavior:
"I acted that way because of what happened to me earlier!"
Responding, on the other hand, means we take action to address what can be addressed. Once we do this, we let go and move on.
For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, take appropriate action to ensure you're not going to have an accident. When you are sure that you're safe, let go and move on with your day - don't carry around the burden of irritation and anger.
That burden only affects you - it does nothing to the person you are irritated or angry at.
Think about this for a minute: you are mad at someone else, but you adopt a state (outlook, behavior, actions) that only affects you and makes your life more difficult. If you fully understand and internalize this, you realize it's insanity to continue functioning this way.
An easy way to remember the distinction between reacting and responding is to think about your doctor prescribing medication to you:
Responding isn't the easiest path. To respond, you have to reverse a lifetime of conditioning that culminates in habitual actions and reactions.
Alright, how do I do it?
How do you avoid getting lost in thoughts and emotions? How do you keep from dwelling on situations and letting them affect you long after they happen? How do you just "let go" and move on?
You do so by cultivating awareness of thoughts, emotions, and urges as they start to arise. This process is known as mindfulness - it comes from developing the skill of observing your mind and its activity without caught up in it. The practice that develops this skill is known as meditating.
Together, mindfulness and meditation help you avoid the conditioned behavior you've historically been victim to. They allow you to create space between the situation and thoughts and emotions about the situation. That space is what you need in order to respond appropriately.
As Viktor Frankl said:
"Between the stimulus and the response there is a space, and in this space lies our power and freedom."
It isn't a transformation that happens instantly - as mentioned above, you are reversing a lifetime of conditioning. And, it requires effort on your part. If you put forth that effort, though, the results can be life-changing.
In addition to helping you respond instead of react, mindfulness and meditation address the struggles we all face on a daily basis:
> A lack of focus
> Endless worry
> Sleep issues
> And on and on...
Where to now?
Most of us go through life in a state of distraction, and we don't even realize it.
We are immersed in a never-ending stream of thoughts and emotions. They hijack our attention, and cause the struggles we deal with every day (continue reading)...
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