Joy Ignites Success

Reaction and Response

By - Saturday, January 18, 2014

Are Knee-Jerk Reactions Ruining Your Life?
   In our daily interactions, when we feel fully present and engaged, we respond based on current circumstances. At other times, when we may not be quite as present, we get easily triggered and reactive.
We become reactive when the present moment gets associated with an unpleasant experience from the past. The reaction happens so quickly that we don’t recognize what’s happening. Rebecca, a client who came in for couples counseling with her husband, demonstrated reactive behavior beautifully. In one of our early sessions together, Rebecca’s husband suggested that she take some time off. Rebecca immediately flew into a rage and started explaining and defending her need to work eighty hours a week. When we dug under the reaction, Rebecca shared that she felt she was being attacked, and under that, she had feelings of not doing a good enough job as wife and mother. He husband’s comment reminded her of how her father had told her she wasn’t doing it right about many things in her life. She was unable to see that her husband’s comment came out of concern for her well-being.  

Rebecca’s insecurities about herself (arising from previous relationships) fueled her reaction to her husband. By staying present to the reaction, she was able to see that what she really needed from her husband was recognition about how hard she was trying. The part of Rebecca that held the wound from the past longed for reassurance. We can see from this how juicy and informative our reactions can be if we explore where they are coming from instead of blaming others for them.
When our reactions go unchecked, they take an entirely different path. Reactions create fixed thought patterns and positions. They limit your ability to be in the present moment because they represent a solidified response. Reactions create rigidities in your belief system and in your body. When you react, there is no room to experience the current moment. Our reactions are no different than the knee jerk when the doctor hits a certain nerve with his little hammer. The body has no choice. The nerve has been struck and the muscle automatically responds.
These emotional and mental reactions or habits can prevent us from deepening our experience. We don’t respond authentically in the moment but with a preconceived notion of what is intended and what the outcome will be. Because reactions are rigid, there is usually no room to take in any new information and modify our position. Reactions have a big investment in being right. Christine Caldwell, one of my teachers at Naropa University, says that being right is one of the most addictive habits around. Many years ago, I found myself in a double bind. No matter which approach I took, I was going to be told I was wrong. In a moment of brilliance, I thought to myself, Oh, there’s a lesson here. I don’t get to be right. It was a major transition point in my life. I can see now that being right (or wrong) is a feature of reaction, and I can go below that reaction to see what I might really be feeling.
When dealing with others, I recommend this as your first action step: notice the experience it brings up in you. Is it a reaction or a response? A great way to determine this really fast (within a breath or less than 30 seconds) is to notice what is happening in your body. A reaction will cause some type of tightness or rigidity in the body. It may be felt in the stomach, the chest, the arms, the jaw—almost anywhere. I can feel a reaction as a knot in my stomach, a tingling in my arms, or a catch in my throat. A response based in the current moment will solicit a more relaxed, open feeling in the body.
I spent the entire first year of my training in body-oriented psychotherapy learning to distinguish between these two in my body. So if it takes a while to become proficient at this, be patient with yourself.

Please share with us about your most recent reaction to a person or event.

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Melanie Smithson Institute is dedicated to enriching lives through embodied education and training; using movement, play and releasing to connect with innate wisdom and joy.  

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