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PART 1: Respond vs Reacting, What’s the Real Difference and Why is it Important?

This is one that I have really struggled with over the years. Anyone who has left their house at any time during their live can sympathize.  And now with social media, the internet and our smart phones the seemingly endless parade of triggers can find their way into the palm of your hand in an instant.

One of the reasons that I was drawn to meditation and the contemplative arts in general was my general level of reactivity.  So many times, I would just react to a situation or individual that I found objectionable and would find myself either over or under reacting. At times I would find the fortitude to defend an appropriate boundary but go way too far in its defence. Other times, I would just shut down and become a compliant doormat in order to maintain peace and stability. These situations would be followed by feelings of embarrassment and shame which would spiral into blame and anger at myself, the other “actors” and the situation in general. It was at times toxic and always an unhelpful and unhealthy way to go through life.  Relationships suffered and so did my confidence in myself and my ability to manager this thing called “life”.  

If deep down, you don’t feel capable to manage your feelings or life in general with all its curveballs you can take many paths to try and cope. Depression, anxiety, resentment, perfectionism and my personal favourite control. I’ve tried them all on at different times in my life and none of them fit very well.

One of the most helpful skills that I’ve learned and I’m still practicing every day is the ability to respond vs react. It’s a vital component of your EQ- emotional intelligence and the ability to do it well will be a major predictor of your health, wellbeing and general success in life.

So, what is the real difference between the two? They sound pretty similar, in both situations your taking action in response to some form of stimulus. The stimulus can be either internal (your own thoughts) or external. An offhand comment by a co-worker, email from a client, personal conflict with those you love, tweets, FB, the sky is blue, grass is green…. You get the picture.

The key difference is the amount of forethought that produces the action that you’re taking in response to whatever stimulus you are facing.  Reactions come largely from your Unconscious mind and they are Emotional and Immediate. A situation occurs and your unconscious mind plugs the input into its master algorithm and spits out a programmed reaction that will be based on various parameters such as your personality, environment, personal history, genetics, physical health, perceptions, personal baggage (we all have it) and many others. That’s why we all react differently to different situations. Each algorithm is personalized to you and your life. The reaction itself is not personal, it’s just been programmed by many years of input. 

But since the reactions are immediate, they also tend to be charged with emotion. Emotions are essential to your well-being as they provide you with important information to help you navigate your world and move you towards a certain path of action. That’s good if you need to run from a bear or sense that an individual is untrustworthy but not so good if they have complete control over you.  Reactions are immediate, occur in the moment and often don’t account for their long-term impact which can result in interpersonal conflict within our life and poor decision-making skills.

A response is the action that you take after you have collected and integrated all of the information that you have access too. Responses typically originate from your Conscious mind and are Intentional and Delayed (seconds-minutes-days). A response evaluates all the information that is available about an input stimulus and makes a thoughtful decision that is right for you based on your values, goals and aspirations.  It integrates the information from the initial reaction (emotions, thought, feelings etc.) and runs it through your conscious mind which weighs the pros and cons of the various outcomes and selects the one that best matches you and your situation. It accounts for several variables such as your current goals, values and aspirations. It listens to the initial reaction because some of the information might be accurate and helpful, however it takes that information with a grain of salt. Most myths and conspiracy theories start with a grain of truth but that doesn’t mean the whole thing is right.  Telling your boss to “take this job and shove it” may feel good in the moment (reaction) but may not fit your long-term goal of expanding your role at the company. (mind your tongue today and reap the benefits tomorrow).  

Keeping in mind the differences between the two they can be summed up as follows:

Reactions                        VS                            Responses

Unconscious mind                                          Conscious Mind

Immediate                                                  Delayed

Emotional-Charged                                         Intentional-Calm            

Being able to respond gives you the best chance to handle whatever life throws at you in the best way possible. In part 2 we’ll cover how to cultivate the ability to respond instead of reacting.


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