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How Reactive Behavior Damages Your Relationships

When you’re proactive, you can choose what to focus on.

Source: Alliance/Shutterstock

When you’re reactive, your feelings depend on external events outside your influence or control. Whether you have a good or bad day depends entirely on what happens to you and around you. The weather, what your boss says about your presentation, what mood your partner is in when you get home, how your favorite team played: All these outside things control your emotions; you don’t. And when your actions are based on your feelings — which they usually are — you’re in dangerous reactive behavior territory. Everything you do is someone else’s fault. You’re not in control of your life.

A good friend says something hurtful; a romantic partner is in a lousy mood; your child refuses to eat what you cooked for dinner; your boss asks you to have work done by Monday, and it’s Friday afternoon. Your reaction comes straight from human evolution: Stress hormones flood your body, shutting down the rational part of your brain, and you enter reactive fight-flight-or-freeze mode. Instead of seeing whether the insult was intended, you respond with an insult of your own; instead of inquiring about why your partner is in a bad mood, you give them the cold-shoulder in retaliation; you punish your child rather than find a solution; and you resentfully accept the work rather than ask for an extension. Your reactive behavior then makes the situation worse. When in reactive mode, you can turn trivial things into full-blown crises.

While your friend’s, partner’s, child’s, and boss’s behaviors are all out of your control, your own thoughts, emotions, and reactions to those behaviors are firmly within your control. You aren’t responsible for their actions, and they’re not responsible for yours. When you take responsibility for yourself, your behavior can change from reactive to proactive. Where you once had no control, you now have all of it.

How those around you behave hasn’t changed, but when you’re in a proactive mode, you can choose how you think about external events. Since feelings follow thoughts, and actions follow feelings, when you choose how you think about something, you also choose how you react to it. The trick is to use mindfulness to create a space between the external event and your reaction to it. When you’re grounded in the present moment and in tune with your body, you can recognize the physical sensations that coincide with specific thoughts and emotions, and you can stop yourself from reactively responding to them.

When your friend says something hurtful, and you feel tightness in your muscles and heat flush your face, instead of jumping to the thought, “She just called me an idiot,” and saying something nasty in response, you can slow down and stop that chain reaction. You now have the emotional distance to ask yourself, “Did she call me an idiot? Or is that how I’m interpreting what she said?” And with that distance, you can inquire further into her comment.

When you’re proactive, you can also choose what to focus on and let go of worrying about things over which you have no influence. Instead of responding to your partner’s bad mood with the cold-shoulder or trying to change their behavior, you can work on being a loving partner and inquire, gently, about what may have led to their bad day.

Whether you feel control of your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors comes from inside yourself or from external events can have a significant effect on your health and happiness. In psychology, this idea is called the locus of control. A person with an internal locus of control attributes their successes and failures to their own actions: "I got in a fight with my partner because I didn’t listen when she told me she needed alone time; next time, I’ll listen and respect her needs." A person with an external locus of control sees outside forces and luck as the controlling force in their life: "I got into a fight with my partner because she was in a bad mood; I won’t apologize, because I did nothing wrong."

Where you feel your control comes from can affect your self-esteem, your work ethic, your health, and the quality of your relationships. You can choose whether you want to be proactive or reactive. You can get in the driver’s seat of your life if you want to. You’ve just got to take the wheel.

More from Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.
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