I was aware of a theoretical difference between reacting and responding. Of course, I thought, I would much rather respond than react in situations. I just couldn’t get beyond scratching the surface of the concept. I then read about how I could distinguish reacting vs responding by how I felt after an event. I then felt I understood the difference in a deeper way…
I was reading The iRest Program for Healing PTSD by Richard C. Miller, PhD, and here’s what jumped out at me: “When you react, you feel that something remains incomplete in the way you handled a particular situation. Something feels “off” or “not right.” When you respond, you feel in harmony with your actions and with the world around you.”
After reading that, I started to categorize times where I felt I had reacted. After some encounters with others, I may have felt justified, but still not quite solid about what I said or did. Like what I said left me feeling inherently unbalanced and unsettled. The unsettled feeling went beyond just being rattled about confronting someone; it was not just nerves, something felt out of place. Even when I wasn’t interacting with someone, reacting could take the form of ruminating and circling the drain; I found myself fixated on how I was wronged or how something had to change in order for me to feel good again. It would feel like I was stuck in this nasty vortex of angst. Also, when reacting, I sensed that I was operating from a child-like conditioned part of myself (see earlier post All of Me).
On the other hand, when I thought about times I felt I had responded, I felt a sense of being solid and grounded. If I had confronted someone, I might have been revved up or otherwise stressed, but I was still good at my core–like I was aligned with the best of me, and there was really nothing to defend or justify. Instead of reacting from a child-like conditioned part, I sensed that I was operating from my calm Self, the centered position where I have access to my adult skills and experiences. I felt capable, and, although engaged, I was detached just enough to have perspective.
One of Rick Hanson’s Being Well podcasts (episode 9: Respond, Don’t React) explores this topic at more length. He describes how we often meet the fork in the road of reacting or responding when something threatens one of our core needs of safety, connection or satisfaction. He described that responding comes from a place where one feels a calm strength in the face of danger because at one is secure in one’s self worth and ability to handle the situation. Whereas, reacting comes from place of feeling that something is missing or wrong inside. I might describe this feeling as a sense of neediness. He says to be mindful of your initial reaction in a situation; if you are feeling confident, you are more likely to be responding, and if you are feeling overwhelmed (laced with a sense of this is too much), you are more likely to be reacting. Having a regular meditation practice has helped me to slow down to notice when I am getting amped up. It often buys me precious decision time off the the cushion; I get a few moments to decide if I want to react or choose to respond. Rick Hanson points out there is often a big cost to reacting. It wreaks havoc with nervous system, makes it more likely that you will react (instead of respond) again in the future, it can be detrimental to communication and the relationship you may want to maintain. I would also say that it can erode your relationship with yourself. Reacting is another piece of evidence, for me, that I can’t count on myself. Responding, on the other hand, is like money in the bank of my Self.