responsive as compared to reactive

Whole Being  —  Responsive as Compared to Reactive

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Whole Being

Respon­sive as com­pared to reac­tive  —  react­ing on autopi­lot is preva­lent  —  always has been. Learn­ing to breathe and then to reflect means that we can respond rather than react.

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Some years ago I was hang­ing out with a friend; we were com­par­ing notes about med­ical pro­ce­dures. She’d had a sig­moi­doscopy the day before.

Aside from a gut ache, she was none the worse for wear.

She won­dered what the Body­work per­spec­tive would say about her low­er diges­tive tract issues. (Her doc­tor had told her that she had “Irri­ta­ble Bow­el Syndrome.”

So, I answered her by ask­ing her why she was reluc­tant to let go of stuff in her life, par­tic­u­lar­ly the “crap­py” stuff.


  • She was some­one who dwelt obses­sive­ly on her past  —  on her (crap­py) upbring­ing, her (crap­py) past rela­tion­ships, her phys­i­cal appearance.
  • She also obsessed about her future  —  she feared mak­ing deci­sions and was reluc­tant to change any­thing, lest she hate the result.

She said that she had recent­ly called to her boyfriend by say­ing, “Come here.” “Go away.” “Come here.” “Go away.” When he asked her what was up, she said, “I just want­ed to say out loud what I say to you in my head.”

Never satisfied, stuck, grumbly, in pain. And her bowels were pretty much the same.

Any­way, we end­ed up laugh­ing about how much of her behav­iour “just seems to hap­pen,” out­side of her con­scious­ness, and there­fore seem­ing­ly out­side of her control.

What we are aware of only represents .00001% of the stimulus that hits our brain. 

Most of us have had the expe­ri­ence of dri­ving some­where, get­ting there and not remem­ber­ing the dri­ve. This is a bald illus­tra­tion of this process. 

The sig­nals are get­ting to the brain, and the link between brain and eyes, hands and feet oper­ates the car, but it hap­pens behind the scene  —  out of awareness.

Here’s an exper­i­ment: Find a stair­case and walk up three stairs, then turn around. Fac­ing down, hold onto the ban­is­ter. Now, make your­self think about the process of walk­ing down the stairs.

Think about your bal­ance, which mus­cles have to be con­tract­ed or released, how to move your knees, hips, ankles and feet.

Here’s what you’ll dis­cov­er: If you 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.

We have learned not to waste brain­pow­er by end­less­ly re-remem­ber­ing day-to-day stuff. You don’t want to have to think about how to brush and floss, or to tie your shoes. 

But here’s the issue: mar­riages or rela­tion­ships 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.

This is known as relating on auto-pilot

We engage with­out think­ing. We hold a view about how to relate  —  a pre-con­ceived notion  —  locked away in the sub or uncon­scious, and what we do or say just tum­bles out.

We deal with some­one’s tone of voice or a sit­u­a­tion the same way each time. Just like good lit­tle robots.

We react instead of responding.

This despite the fact that no con­ver­sa­tion has to come out the same, and no sit­u­a­tion is ever the same.

When I speak about or write about rela­tion­ship issues I sug­gest pay­ing atten­tion, talk­ing hon­est­ly with one’s part­ner, and shift­ing focus from autopi­lot to con­scious­ly work­ing on relating.

If peo­ple do that, they almost always enact a quite dif­fer­ent response  —  a non-auto-pilot response.

No ques­tion, peo­ple do slide back into auto-pilot. They slide back pre­cise­ly when they stop pay­ing atten­tion to what is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing and go back to “react­ing at” as opposed to “respond­ing with” each other.

This is OK, as well as pre­dictable  —  all they have to do is to remem­ber to start pay­ing atten­tion again.

I once worked with a client, the wife of the pair. She was in the midst of decid­ing whether to leave the marriage. 

He would­n’t come for ther­a­py, as he had decid­ed that she had all the prob­lems. Nev­er mind that it takes two to make or break any relationship.

Ulti­mate­ly, he showed up for one ses­sion. He tried to move his chair over next to me; he said he would help me “fix” his wife. 

He was quite upset when I made him move his chair, while 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; he blamed her for not doing things 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 not con­scious­ly reac­tive. 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 so he can feel like a martyr.

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: You’ve had bad rela­tion­ships. You react to con­flict by replay­ing past hurts; you then decide to get revenge, and go on autopi­lot, react­ing to every­thing with aggres­sion.

To change this, you must declare a prin­ci­ple  — 

Every­thing I say and do from now on will be direct­ed toward relat­ing well (from your side, as that’s all you can con­trol.) As a stim­u­lus hap­pens, I stop, remem­ber my prin­ci­ple, and form a response based upon relat­ing well.”

You may not want to, as your reac­tion is still in place, scream­ing, “Make the ass­hole pay!” but you freeze that reac­tion and choose anoth­er way, in the present moment, that mir­rors your prin­ci­ple. You 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 know your­self and strength­en your relating.

Ask your­self how often your mouth runs off with­out the active par­tic­i­pa­tion of your brain. Shift, and try it anoth­er way. Then, do it again. And again.

Even­tu­al­ly, destruc­tive habits can be changed, but only if you pay attention.

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