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Responsive as compared to reactive

The Fringe Dweller's Guide to the Universe

Responsive as compared to reactive


I was hanging out with one of my friends today. I always enjoy hanging with her, and today we were talking about medical procedures, in this case a sygmoidoscopy she'd had the day before. Aside from a gut ache, she was none the worse for wear.

She was wondering about a Bodywork perspective on her lower digestive tract. (See? Don't I have an interesting life? I get to talk about bowels!!!) Her doctor told her she may have the ubiquitous "Irritable Bowel Syndrome." I asked her why she was reluctant to let go of stuff in her life, particularly the "crappy" parts.

She does dwell on her past - on her upbringing, her past relationships, her shape. She dwells on her future - fearful of choosing, of changing anything, lest she hate the result. She mentioned that the other night she had called to her boyfriend, "Come here." "Go away." "Come here." "Go away." When questioned, she said, "I just wanted to do consciously what I do with you unconsciously." Never satisfied, stuck, grumbly. So are her bowels.

Anyway, we did end up laughing about how much of her behaviour "just seems to happen," outside of her consciousness, and therefore seemingly outside of her control. As I illustrated last week, consciousness only represents .00001% of the stimulus hitting the brain. Most of us have had the experience of driving somewhere, getting there and not remembering the drive. This is a bald illustration of the process of the 99.99999%. All the signals are getting to the brain, and the link between eyes and hand and foot operates the car, but it happens behind the scenes.

If you want to play with this a bit, find a staircase and walk up three stairs, turn around, facing down, and hold onto the banister. Now, make yourself think about walking down the stairs. Think about your balance, which muscles have to be contracted or released, how to move the knee, the hip, the ankle and foot. If you pretend you don't know how, and consciously think about it, chances are that you'll have trouble going down the three stairs. Give yourself a shake and all will be well.

Now, of course, we have no energy or brainpower to waste on re-remembering stuff like that. You don't want to have to think about how to brush and floss, or to tie your shoes. But marriages or relationships, for example, seldom get bogged down over tying shoes. Marriages break down, relationships or work situations break down because we treated the way we interact like we treat tying our shoes.

We engage without thinking. We hold a view - a pre-conceived notion, and it's locked away in the sub or unconscious, and it just tumbles out. We deal with a tone of voice or a situation the same way each time. Just like good little robots. We react instead of responding.

The Native people have a saying; "You can't enter the river from the same place twice." No conversation has to come out the same, and no situation is ever the same.

I mentioned 2 weeks ago a woman with relationship issues, who kept saying, "I know, I've tried that." I suggested that she needed to pay attention, talk honestly with her husband, and shift her focus from autopilot to consciously working on the relationship. Somewhat to my surprise, she did exactly that, and got a response quite different from what she had been experiencing. Her husband began to ask her what she wanted with her life, her marriage. In other words, dialog has begun.

Now, of course, they'll slide back into indifference, because that's what they have been doing for 16 of 19 years. They will slide back at precisely the point that they stop paying attention to what is actually happening and simply begin "reacting at" as opposed to "responding with" each other. This is OK, as well as predictable, and all they have to do then is remember to start paying attention again.

I remember once working with a client, the wife of a pair, who was in the midst of deciding whether to leave the marriage. He wouldn't come in, as he had decided that she had all the problems. Never mind that it takes two to make or break any relationship. Ultimately, he did come in for one session. He sat next to me, prepared, as he was, to help me "fix" his wife. He was quite upset when I kept asking him how his own arrogance and single-minded focus had contributed to the ruin of the marriage.

He didn't get it. He parroted the same words, blaming her for not doing it his way. He wasn't at all interested in who she was. He was only interested in changing her into who he wanted her to be. But, and I stress this, he was doing this unconsciously. Reactively. He'd made a decision, long ago, that he was right and she was wrong. Everything he did was dedicated to proving this point, NOT to improving the relationship.

I just love people like him (not!) - I usually get to the point of saying, "If you are so wise and all-knowing, why have you never had a successful relationship?" Seems to me that wisdom should create results the person actually wants.

Unless he is getting what he wants. A failed relationship he can feel martyred about.

Today's concepts are reaction as compared to response. I just thought of another definition.

  • A reaction always has to do with what was done in the past and is driven by regret or fear of the future.
  • A response, on the other hand, is located in the present moment, and is based upon a current interpretation, while also based upon a principle.

Example: I've had a bad relationship. I react by continually replaying past hurts; decide to get even, and go on autopilot, reacting to everything with aggression.

To change this, I declare a principle - Everything I say and do from now on will be directed at building a better relationship. Then, as a stimulus happens, I stop, remember my principle, and form a response based upon building a better relationship. I may not want to, as my reaction is still in place, screaming, "Make him pay!" but I freeze that reaction and choose another way, in the present moment. I do this again and again.

Try paying attention to the way you engage with others, and pay attention to what you say to yourself. Notice how much of what crosses your lips and mind is the same mindless drivel of criticism and judgement. Then, ask yourself, "what am I trying to accomplish by thinking or saying that?" Ask yourself what your response would be, if your goal was to consciously build up yourself and your partner or friend. Ask yourself how often your mouth runs off without the active participation of your heart and brain. Then, shift over and try it another way. Then, do it again. And again. Eventually, destructive habits can be changed, but only if you pay attention.

The world awaits your response.

A Moment's Humour

Of course, Canadians have Jean Cretien, our marble mouthed Prime Minister, who slaughters syntax in both languages. We have Mel Lastman, who has a strange way of making friends in Africa. But for sheer joke value, we of the North have to turn Southward. Not since Dan Quale has the English language received such elegant treatment. Outdoing the Elder Bush, the present Shrub has a gift for the language. Knowing our love for words, a former wife of mine sent me the following from the Lower 50.

by George W. Bush

(This is a poem made up entirely of actual quotes from George W. Bush. The quotes have been arranged only for aesthetic purposes, by Washington Post writer Richard Thompson. Too good not to share.)

I think we all agree, the past is over.
This is still a dangerous world.
It's a world of madmen and uncertainty
and potential mental losses.

Rarely is the question asked
Is our children learning?
Will the highways of the Internet become more few?
How many hands have I shaked?

They misunderestimate me.
I am a pitbull on the pantleg of opportunity.
I know that the human being and the fish can coexist.
Families is where our nation finds hope, where our wings take dream.

Put food on your family!
Knock down the tollbooth!
Vulcanize Society!
Make the pie higher! Make the pie higher!

(To which we add, AMEN!)

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