One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from my meditation practice, is that I am now much more likely to respond to a difficult situation than react. That’s not to say I don’t fall into old reactive habits sometimes, I’m only human, I just find that it’s become easier to leave that old me behind.
What exactly is the difference between responding and reacting, anyway? When you respond to something, you give some consideration to what you are going to say or do. It’s not immediate, you take a pause before you proceed. A reaction is immediate and not well thought out. Like that jerking motion your knee makes when it’s tapped, thus the phrase “knee-jerk reaction,” it’s really just a reflex.
We see so much reaction these days. Everyone from politicians to professional athletes, to the customer ahead of you at your local coffee shop, and it appears to be becoming more common.
The problem with reacting is it can lead to regret, hurt feelings or worse (much worse). Responding seldom has those same results. As a young mother of three very active kids, any regrets I have about my parenting involves my reactions to their behaviors. I often say if I had found meditation when my kids were young, I would have been a much more patient (and I believe better) parent. I understand, however, that we do the best we can with the tools we have, and that was just something that wasn’t in my wheelhouse at that time.
So, moving forward, how do I, how can we all create a space where responding becomes more natural than reacting? Beyond meditation here are some strategies you can follow:
- Learn to notice your emotions. Overreaction can be avoided by simply noticing that you’re emotional. Emotions are much easier to control earlier in the escalation process.
- Step away. It’s not enough to say to yourself, “I’m angry.” It’s far more effective to think, “I’m angry. I should watch my words until I’ve had time to process and calm down.” In nearly all situations, there’s plenty of time to think before responding.
- If you find yourself reacting, breathe. The simple act of focusing on your breath can quickly diffuse your growing emotions. Despite what you might believe, you can only think about one thing at a time, so if you’re focused on your breath, you have to calm down.
- Recognize the gift of being a human being. Arguably, most animals are simply reaction machines. The are guided by instance and don’t pause to consider the best course of action. Dog – Squirrel, you get the idea. As a human being, you have the option of considering all the possibilities. Reacting quickly rarely results in the best outcome.
- Use emotion to your advantage. Being emotional about an issue is simply a measure of how meaningful it is to you, so give the emotional issues in your life your full attention. And then, it’s up to you to objectively examine the situation and make a thoughtful decision.
- List your options. If time permits, sitting down and making a list is almost magical. When you’re focused on finding all the possible solutions, you’re likely to discover there are some good choices available to you. You’re unlikely to find the best solution without making an effort to find it.
- Consider the consequences. It’s human nature to think short-term. Saying something unkind might feel good in the moment, but consider having to deal with the aftermath. Quitting your job might relieve your discomfort today, but what about next month? Think further down the road.
Reacting too quickly is rarely the best option. Responding appropriately is a key factor in creating a successful and enjoyable life. If you’re reacting, consider making the effort to respond to life’s challenges in a more intelligent and thoughtful manner. You’ll be glad you did!