A Positive Relationship with Reactivity
Creating a positive relationship with your own reactivity is one of the most important parts of preventing it from taking over and doing damage. There are three basic dimensions to attend to as you create a positive relationship to reactivity:
Becoming a compassionate witness: This means catching the signs of reactivity early and then being kind and gentle with yourself about the reaction.
Wisdom: This means seeing reactivity for what it is - a misperception of threat and a distortion of what's happening. Of course, the real trick is maintaining this clarity moment after moment even while reactivity escalates.
New Action: Reactivity will always tell you to fight, flee the situation, or shut down. Finding the strength to remain engaged and pursue connection and clarity weakens reactive impulses over time.
To cultivate a compassionate witness take time to write down all the signs and symptoms that tell you reactivity is up for you. Here are a few that are common to most people:
-You feel your shoulders get tight (or any part of you contracts)
-Heart rate increases
-You start to talk louder and faster
-Your mind starts to go fuzzy
-You shut down and feel numb
-You feel angry
-You criticize yourself or others
-You think in extremes (always, never)
-You feel defensive and start explaining yourself
-You feel anxious and fearful
-You feel overwhelmed
Accepting reactivity is sometimes more difficult than recognizing the signs and symptoms. Truly accepting that you are reactive in a given moment means maintaining a sense of larger truths. Truths like:
Everyone gets reactive. It doesn't mean that you are failing somehow.
Even though reactive impulses are strong, acting from them will only make things worse.
Reactivity arises from a lifetime of experiences and possibly many life times past. It's a freight train of habit energy moving through and sometimes the best you can do is jump off the tracks and watch it until it passes.
The most helpful thing you can do to manage reactivity is be kind and gentle with yourself.
The second part of accepting reactivity with compassion is to create the habit of responding to your own experience with a soft, gentle, yet clear tone. For me, this crystallized into the simple phrase "It's okay" in response to any unpleasant experience arising in me. For example, "I am reacting and that's okay." "It's okay to react." "It's okay to feel nervous, anxious, panicky, angry, defensive, etc.".
For cultivating wisdom with reactivity, you might find it effective to just feel it until it passes without letting your mind get involved. It's also helpful to name the event that triggered you and name the feelings and needs underneath the reactivity. If each time you get reactive, you take time to name the feelings and needs up for you, you will be less and less fooled by the reactive state, and better able to see what's important to you about a particular situation.
Naming reactivity as it arises, expressing compassion for yourself, seeing through the reactivity to what's really important, all come together to give you a true choice to take new action. If you are persistent in this practice, you will find yourself sitting at a fork in a road in which reactivity beckons you to shut down or get angry, while compassion and wisdom call you to stay engaged, give the other person the benefit of the doubt, or simply take more time to get grounded before responding.
Every time you choose to take the road to new action born from compassion and wisdom, the pull to go down the reactive road gets a little bit weaker. Life gets a little easier for you and for those around you. When your partner or someone close to you notices you feeling reactive, and then sees you take responsibility for it in this way, they can breath a sigh of relief that they won't be the target for reactive energy and words.
This week start this process by creating your own list of the signs and symptoms of reactivity. Each time you notice a sign of reactivity, practice meeting that experience with compassion using a phrase, a mindful breath, an image, a sound, a movement, or whatever helps you to access compassion most easily.