Responding Vs Reacting
Updated: Jul 11, 2022
I used to like a good social media debate. I’d see something on a local community page, or maybe a parenting page and I’d be right in. Giving my unsolicited opinion. Trying to convince the other person that how I saw the world was the ‘correct’ way of seeing things.
I would tell people what I thought they needed to do. How they needed to live. And if (on the odd occasion) I didn’t reply in writing, the thoughts would churn in my head.
‘If only they did this…’
‘They’re doing it wrong…’
‘They need to know that…’
Even now I can on the odd occasion feel the pull. I have with time (and it is a process!) learnt to (for the most part), not react to comments on social media or strong conflicting opinions in another person.
I have opinions and ideas of how I’d like the world to be. That hasn’t changed. I don’t think I will ever not romanticise how the world could be as I’m quite a romantic and try to see that we as a human collective can always be ‘better’. At least my version of ‘better’.
So what changed?
Well, I learnt about the ego. A general summary is that it is part of our subconscious, a part of us which from conditioning, mainly as we were growing up, looks to repeat patterns and behaviours which it considers ‘safe’. By ‘safe’ I mean sticking with what we know, even if it does not meet our best interests. So staying with our version of the truth. That if X happens, Y is the consequence. And we actually look for that. There is a part of our brain called the RAS (reticular activating system) and its job is to filter through information from our environment and pick out the ‘important bits’. So what happens is, growing up, through behaviours from our caregivers, our brains create an image of the world and how it is. It looks for patterns, it places us in the world and how we ‘fit in’ to it. So this repeated patterning contributes to the ego.
So the ego is important in understanding the difference between responding and reacting because what the ego is doing is looking to support your world view. Listening to and observing your ego is an important exercise in slowing down your response to a situation.
‘Reacting’ is letting the ego jump in with its stories. What happens is when you hear, see or read something that challenges your world view or a core belief, your nervous system is activated. The limbic brain which is responsible for emotions then creates an emotion in reaction to your nervous system. The neo-cortex then creates a story to the situation - in alignment with your ego stories.
Responding is being aware of the whole process. It’s about being aware when you feel your nervous system activate. It’s about connecting to the emotions that arise. It’s about observing stories/ego, but (!) just observing, not believing what they are telling you about a certain situation. I want to tell you something that you may not know…
Your thoughts are not you!
Hmm? What? How does that work?
Your thoughts are not your identity. Your thoughts are what you have been programmed to believe over years of conditioning starting from when you were a child. You do not belong to them! You can listen to them, just observe them and then let them go.
The ego tends to assign stories to what we hear. When hearing a differing opinion, the ego can feel attacked. That our view of seeing the world is being attacked by another person. And that world view isn’t just an opinion, our ego is telling us that our opinion is us. We are our opinion according to our ego. So an attack on my opinion, is viewed by my ego as an attack of self.
So why is learning to respond better than learning to react? Responding is a conscious choice on how to respond to a situation rather than a nervous system one. We are less likely to say things which are hurtful, damaging or attacking. Guilt and shame can come from reacting to a conversation with our ego and saying things we didn’t really want to. Then when we get into the guilt and shame cycle that can further send our ego stories of our own perceived ineptitude and lack of self-worth spiralling ever further down, so we react even more leading to more guilt and shame.
It’s also important to recognise that someone else’s viewpoint is totally valid for their own experience. Their own conditioning and life experience has influenced where they are coming from, and although it may not be appropriate and it could even be rude or damaging, we are not able to change others. They are responsible for themselves. They need to access their own healing.
So how does responding ‘look’? What I started to do when hearing something that I immediately felt inclined to defend or attack was stop. Breathe. Then listen. What thoughts are running through my head right now? I’m angry because the opinion I just heard I am interpreting as a choice that I have made is wrong. This ‘incorrect’ decision I have made means I am not good enough. I am not worthy. And so the subconscious stories swirl in my head. Maybe what they are saying is triggering a shadow part of myself that I deny and don’t want to admit to. Listening to these thoughts I am able to take a step back and decide, is it a boundary that I need to put in place or do I need to walk away?
I invite you next time you see a debate on social media or hear two people discussing opposing opinions is look at the comments or listen to them. See how no one is listening to each other. Everyone is reacting, they are taking the disagreement as a personal affront. You can see it in their replies, especially when they get personal, make sarcastic comments or try to belittle each other. They are looking for others to affirm their world view. To convince the other and ‘win’.
By observing, gradually, over time, you are able to listen to differing opinions without your nervous system being startled and respond in a more conscious way.
Carla Crivaro is a trauma-informed and certified Sex, Love & Relationship Coach, she works with men and women internationally to reach their goals in delicious sex, profound love and authentic relationships. Carla helps men and women understand themselves and each other, sexually and relationally, in and out of the bedroom. You can reach her at email@example.com.