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The Cost of Reactivity (or how learning to be responsive can transform your life)

Standing in the supermarket queue recently, I noticed two women in particular. Each was third in line, but their behaviour was very different: lady no. 1 was continually checking her watch, snapping at her toddler, and pushing her trolley in an aggressive way into the man standing in front of her. Lady no. 2, on the other hand, was chatting to her child and smiling at the other shoppers, even though the couple at the top of her queue couldn’t get their credit card to work, and her particular till operator seemed on a go-slow. I asked myself the question: which of the two women was I like most of the time?

Before considering the pitfalls of reactivity and the benefits of responsiveness, let’s be clear about what each word means.

Reactivity is an automatic reaction to an event or interaction,  that has activated our fight, flight or freeze defensive mechanisms. Our bodies are designed to keep us safe, and reactivity is an important part of that safety system. Which of us would not want to be reactive and leap up the nearest tree if confronted by a 2.5m grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies? Or, to give a more urban example, which of us would not want to dive for the pavement when half way over a pedestrian crossing and realising that a car is not going to stop?

Reactivity turns unproductive when we use it for perceived threats that are not threats at all. We run the risk of broken relationships, increased stress levels and emotional distress when we get into the habit of reacting to the slightest inconvenience with annoyance, anger, panic, withdrawal or hostility. It may seem like a necessary “letting off steam”, but its effects don’t lead to good outcomes.

Responsiveness is an intentional way to reply to events or interactions. “Respond” involves taking responsibility for our behaviour. Responsiveness is usually positive, affirming and respectful of all aspects of a situation. Being responsive may at times involve anger, but it is a considered position. The term “righteous anger” is a good description – anger would be a fit and proper response to abuse of power towards a vulnerable person, e.g. a child.

Another difference is that reactivity is instantaneous – without conscious thought. This is because the activation of the defence mechanisms of our brains suspends the cortex – the reasoning, rational, decision-making area. Responding involves consideration, deliberation, weighing up of consequences, and can only be accessed when we feel secure.

The key points for becoming a more responsive person are:

  • Develop a healthy sense of self and personal competence
  • Choose to look on challenges as opportunities, not threats
  • Make sure you have enough rest, recreation and good nutrition – these will provide your body with the optimum resources to live a balanced life
  • Surround yourself with friends and family who are supportive and affirming
  • Practice “counting to ten” in difficult situations – it works!
  • Lighten up – learn to laugh at yourself and others
  • Don’t be afraid to admit times of reactivity and look for opportunities to put the situation right again.  A genuine apology is always a good idea!

We can probably all think of people we know who are reactive and quick to fly off the handle, and who leave us feeling unsure and uneasy around them. In contrast, people who are responsive convey calm, certainty and confidence in themselves, which leads to the people around them feeling relaxed too. The move from reactivity to responsiveness is truly transformational.

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