React or Respond?

I am endlessly fascinated by the differences in emotional response that a situation can draw from people. Why is it that a specific set of circumstances can stir such a maelstrom in one individual but make little impact on another? I suspect it is because no one event in our lives happens in a vacuum; to use email terminology, our lives have ‘threads’, histories that continue to feed our present for good or bad.

I tend to think there is a difference between reacting and responding. For me, when we react, it is often from a place that goes beyond thinking; it is often ‘knee jerk’, an emotional response that is linking in with past experience – quite often of a painful kind – colouring our perception and shaping our current actions. In short, we are not just dealing with events in the present but bringing in a whole host of past baggage, viewing the situation through an accumulation of old hurts. We often do this without realising; oblivious to how that pile of unrelated stuff has been sewn together in our minds. If a present situation has a similar theme or tone to past hurts, we might immediately and unconsciously link the two; over time, if we continue to link situation after situation, any future experience that triggers this thread can be crippling and we react with the unthinking visciousness of a wounded animal – we lash out; we fight our corner; we attack because that place, over years, has become such a vulnerable one for us.

However, when we respond we become conscious of what drives that reaction. Responding suggests a relationship between us and our environment at the moment something happens, we are not just being driven by an established, internalised pattern but looking outward and taking the situation on it’s own terms. Responding requires us to examine and question our own reactions; it asks that we be open to the ambiguity and complexity of an event; be open to the possiblilty that our own view is one of many.

Reaction is rigid and inflexible; has a need to be ‘right’ in order to feel safe, that it might serve to protect and cope with those deeply vulnerable feelings that have accumulated over the years. Response is flexible and yeilding; willing to see the part we play in a situation; able to see multiple viewpoints and therefore remain open to learning, growing, changing and moving on.

Both of these ways of dealing with life brings their own challenges. Responding means often having to accept what might be difficult for us to acknowledge about ourselves, others and the situations we find ourselves in. Reacting can build yet more hurt, causing us to psychologically stiffen and seize into mental patterns that are emotionally destructive.

When we react we build yet another link in that painful chain that binds us to the past; when we respond, we give ourselves the opportunity to free ourselves from those binds. The world widens and deepens and we can breathe a little easier.




  1. Brenda D said,

    November 14, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    One of the things I most appreciate about your writing is the honesty of your observation – you write as beautifully about the more difficult and uncomfortable experiences of life as you do about the joyful ones – reflecting the balance of things and that resonates with so many people. There is no attempt at false “gloss” – just the glow of genuine humanity. Wonderful.

  2. luckyloom1 said,

    November 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Thank you Brenda! That is really kind of you to say – I really appreciate that you enjoy reading. x

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