Do you sometimes find yourself behaving with unusually intense emotion toward someone close, like your partner, a family member, or a friend?
Maybe you lash out verbally, screaming, or speaking with ice or venom in your voice. You might even actually strike him or her.
Even if you try to contain yourself, you may feel so furious inside that the anger is visible on your face and in your movements. Or, you might just shut down and refuse to talk to or even acknowledge the person.
When you react to another person in this raw, completely emotional manner, and your behavior is disproportionate to the situation, you are being reactive.
When you are reactive, you are not in control of yourself, because you are shutting off the part of your brain that thinks logically and clearly.
As a result, you lose the ability to contemplate or choose the best way for you to behave.
In this mode, it’s unlikely you will have any interest in maintaining or strengthening your connection to the other person, even if he or she is deeply important to you.
It is very easy to be destructive when you are reactive.
Being reactive ultimately does not make you feel good. You may get some gratification from feeling like a victim or martyr, from venting your anger, from retaliating, or from wounding the other person. However, none of this is going to help you like yourself more, get closer to someone you love, or do a better job of managing your life.
Still, behaving reactively is irresistible to all of us at times, so we need to pay attention to it.
Are there any benefits to being reactive? In some situations, yes. You can think of reactivity as a manifestation of the “fight or flight” response. When you’re feeling threatened or provoked by hostile behavior, one way to respond is to attack, with enough force and ferocity to overwhelm or destroy the “enemy.”
Of course, this may serve you well when you are actually in danger of being assaulted, but not when you are having a disagreement with someone you love.
The alternative to being reactive is to be thoughtful and remain calm in tough situations.
Doing so does not mean that you push aside or ignore your feelings, including your anger. It means that you keep your hands on the steering wheel and use your emotions constructively, instead of going ballistic.
This choice is preferable to reactivity for several reasons:
- When you are able to think about and choose how you want to behave, you can choose a wiser course and avoid hurtful and destructive behaviors that you may regret later.
- You are more likely to feel good about yourself when you behave in a way that you truly admire. Deep down, most of us don’t respect the ways that we behave when we are reactive, which only makes us feel worse.
- You will have a better chance of creating, maintaining, and enhancing close connections with others when you are thoughtful and in control of your actions.
Despite these clear benefits, getting a grip on our reactivity is difficult. There will always be someone, or some situation, that presses our buttons and sets us off.
In my next blog, I’ll be writing about ways to manage reactivity.