React vs Respond: Keeping Cool During Stressful Times

I was the kind of person who used to flare up at the slightest of provocation. And for years, I used to justify my highly sensitive persona and expected people around to respect my boundaries. But can you enforce boundaries all the time?

Well having boundaries is natural and healthy, but expecting people always to be respectful is unrealistic. People are not that understanding in real life. There will always be folks who will leave no opportunity to exploit your triggers.

So should we hide our vulnerabilities? Well, you can, but the problem is that you’re likely to go into withdrawal or even isolation, and in your attempt to protect yourself, you will end up distancing yourself from a lot of genuinely good people out there.

You will always be scared to share your true feelings and emotions. Studies show that suppression of emotions or “botting-up” is detrimental for our mental health and is associated with early death (1).

Human beings are social creatures, and withdrawing from people creates a whole lot of problems. Except, when you’re undergoing a spiritual awakening, it’s a different matter then, but we’ll save that talk for another time.

One of the primary tenets of emotional empowerment is the ability to respond instead of reacting to an unpleasant situation. There’s no preventing the unpleasantness. It will always be there no matter how strongly you enforce your boundaries. Some people just don’t get it.

I’m not telling you to stop asserting your boundaries and let people be all over you. No! That’s not what I’m implying here.

I’m telling you to respond with firmness, instead of reacting impulsively to a given situation. You can be firm without being rude.

Being kind, calm, collected, yet firm is a part of being compassionate towards ourselves and others.

What’s the Difference Between Reacting and Responding?

We spend most of our lives reacting to situations in a way that is usually not favorable to us. The moment we feel triggered, we give in to our negative emotions and respond impulsively with an unpleasant emotion, which in turn, escalates the situation.

I occasionally ask people who attend my programs as to why they react negatively whenever they are triggered. And the answer is mostly the same – “I don’t know what overcame me at this point – I lost myself – that was not me”.

Notice how they can make this subtle discernment when they say, “That was not me”. Yes, that’s not you. That’s not your real nature. And that’s what differentiates us from animals.

Thought we might share biological similarities with animals, we are at a plane of higher consciousness. We have the highest capability of discriminatory intelligence that animals lack. Animals, on the other hand, are driven by instinctive intelligence.

What that means is that we can see and analyze our behavior. The very fact that we can recall the way be behaved in the past, how it felt, and what impact it has on us and others clearly indicates the presence of higher consciousness.

But here’s the problem. During the moment of conflict – the very moment someone is rude to us – we can’t seem to get hold of our emotions. At that moment, the animal instinct takes over, and we lose all our discerning capabilities and blindly give into our emotions.

For example, say you’re at a party, and one of the relatives says something rude about you. You immediately get flared up. So two things generally happen in such a scenario:

  1. You either don’t say anything to avoid conflict, or
  2. You respond with the same rudeness.

Both of these scenarios have destructive consequences. In the first case, you will likely internalize the anger, which will subsequently come out as anger or passive-aggressive behavior towards some other person (like spouse or children).

When we avoid conflict in this manner, the repressed anger manifests itself in some other form, which can be a physical health symptom, such as inflammation or pain within the body.

In the second situation, you respond with the same intensity. This getting-back-mentality is harmful. It might make you feel good at the moment because you’ve satisfied your ego, but this habitual behavior creates pain in the long run.

It might ultimately end your relationship with that person. What if it’s your parent? Or in-laws? What if it’s your boss or someone with higher authority over you?

Well, there is a third option. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at what creates these troubling emotions within us.

What Creates an Emotional Reaction Within Us?

Do you know why you get triggered and lose yourself to afflicting emotions? It’s because, through repetitions, you have wired your brain to react to certain types of physical and psychological stimuli.

You see, humans like to follow the path of least resistance. Our brains are wired to behave in this manner. If you have to analyze and make decisions for every action you perform, it’s a lot of drain on your brain.

Therefore, the brain continually changes by creating new neural pathways and losing the old ones through neuroplasticity. Through sustained action, the brain rewires itself to think and respond in a new way.

For example, when you drive down to your workplace, you don’t have to remember the route each time consciously. The map is already there in your mind, and it runs on a sort-of auto-piolet mode.

Even when you perform the most basic activities like bathing, walking, cooking, brushing your teeth, etc., you don’t have to think. You perform these activities, and only after you’ve completed them, you realize that you’ve done the work.

Similarly, through repeated action, we learn to react to different triggers differently. A highly egoistic person may feel offended at the slightest of criticism, even it was made with a good intention.

A highly sensitive person may be greatly triggered by seeing acts of injustice, discrimination, hatred, or violence. An insecure person may feel envy or hate for people around them. Fear and insecurities can drive people to self-sabotage and also create problems for others.

Human beings are a mix of all of these personas. In some areas, our ego acts dominant, while in other areas, it’s the insecurities. Sometimes we showcase confidence, maturity, and compassion, while other times, we exhibit anger, envy, jealousy, and hatred.

No matter how realized or enlightened, all human beings have a shadow – the dark parts of their personality that reside deep within their unconscious mind.

These are a collection of thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviors, perversions, and traumas that we have pushed on to the personal unconscious through repression. And we have no recollection in our conscious mind of the things that we have pushed into the shadow.

The idea of shadow was popularized by the famous phycologist Carl Jung. According to him, people tend to push into the unconscious or the unknown part of the mind, the things that they feel are insignificant and don’t want to deal with, or the things that are too disturbing, like childhood trauma, bullying, harassment, an episode of physical or psychological abuse, and more.

However, the disturbing elements of our personal shadow manifest as uncomfortable feelings and sensations within our conscious mind. It’s difficult to form an association between the troubling emotion and these elements of the shadow.

For example, unexplained anger and anxiety generally relate to childhood abuse. I used to experience a lot of anxiety and anger for reasons I could not explain. Doing deeper inner work, revealed to me how childhood abuse contributed to my turbulent psychological state.

As a child, I was often beaten up with a cane by my teachers for minor things like not submitting homework on time, or giving a wrong answer to a question. 

On top of that, I was raised by narcissistic parents who had absolutely no empathy towards my feelings. I repressed a lot of emotions, which eventually led to me being an emotionally dysregulated adult.

So when you’re angry or upset over a rude remark or behavior, a majority of your reactive behavior is being directed by the unconscious mind. The conscious mind only shows the projection that is created by the shadow-self.

How to Train the Mind to Respond Calmly to a Challenging Situation?

Let’s come back that third option I was talking about earlier. What do you do when you encounter an unpleasant situation, like a rude behavior from a parent, spouse, friend, coworker, or boss?

Responding with anger is an indication that you lack emotional control. By showing anger, the very first thing you did was to expose your triggers. 

The person who was rude to you now knows what triggers you. Anytime they want an emotional reaction out of you, they know which points to trigger.

By showing anger, you unknowingly expose your vulnerabilities created by your unconscious thoughts and emotions.

The very first thing is to uncover these hidden feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Doing inner work helps in this process. Till you remain unaware of your inner-self, you’ll never know what’s happening.

The second step is to develop mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice that creates a space of awareness about ourselves. It helps us to discover the root cause of our pain and suffering. Meditation practice is incredibly helpful in this process.

It helps us to reduce the chatter of the overthinking-wandering-monkey-mind and brings more presence and awareness. In this awareness, we witness, without judgment or reaction, those deep hidden feelings, traumas, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that create psychological pain.

Self-awareness helps create kindness and compassion, not only for yourself but also for the unkind or unpleasant people towards you. Instead of reacting in anger, you remain calm, grounded, and respond with kindness and compassion.

It also helps in building emotional resilience. An emotionally aware and resilient person is a better leader and a better decision-maker than an impulsive and reactive one.

When people are rude or unkind to you – it’s about them and not you.

The reason why these people behave rudely is that they have not done the inner-work. Their poor behavior comes from their deep-seated fears and insecurities that they project on to others.

And you have the power to stop people from projecting by not reacting and responding in a calm and grounded manner. When they see that their actions have no impact on you – they’ll withdraw.

Training your mind to respond calmly instead of reacting requires time and practice. Learning this essential skill will help you effectively deal with the challenges of life. It will empower you emotionally and create a better human being out of you.

If you’re interested in learning about mindfulness and meditation, here are a few resources that will help.

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