When life delivers a plethora of unexpected and unpleasant surprises, it can be easy and automatic to react negatively. Many of these reactions are unconscious and engrained in us as human beings. Throughout our lives, most of us are taught and conditioned to react to disappointments with sadness, unkindness from others with anger or defensiveness, heavy traffic with stress and frustration, illness and death with fear, and our mistakes with judgment. If I listed twenty activities, most would agree on the “common way” to react to each situation.
But, who says this is how we “should” be reacting? Is there an alternative choice? Is there a more effective way? Or are we truly helpless victims to life’s circumstances?
Let’s take traffic, standing in line or changing diapers, as examples. Who do you know that LOVES traffic and consciously seeks it out as a form of pleasure? Who LOVES standing in long lines? Who would choose to change dirty diapers as often as possible? Okay, not many. It’s commonplace to commiserate with others in line, or complain about the horrendous commute as though we’d completed an “Ironman Triathalon.” Sharing war stories about sleepless nights, and endless diapers are also common stories.
Yet, being miserable in line, traffic or diaper changing doesn’t actually accomplish anything, except for creating internal stress and negative emotion. Last I checked, the traffic doesn’t respond to a loud voice, fidgeting doesn’t magically result in speedier lines, and babies do poop — often. In addition to the damage internal stress has on our bodies, this “habit” of reaction cuts us off from our true source of power and internal freedom. When we’re caught up RESISTING a situation like these, our HABIT is stronger than our power to choose. When we’re reacting, we’re not choosing.
Why do we react?
If it doesn’t LOGICALLY make sense to react in these situations, why would we keep reacting? Good question. Yet, we’re somewhat innocent. We’ve watched our parents react and learned on TV how people react — typically. We’ve grown to see drama as a way of life, something we can’t avoid. We are creatures of habit and conditioning.
Another influence that keeps our reactions and habits alive is our need to connect with others. As human beings, especially today, we’ve become a society that connects through our misery. It’s become one of the most popular ways to bond and create intimacy. Complaining about how our spouse didn’t do this, and our boss yelled, and how the lady at the store was rude gives us an opportunity to connect with another because it’s a common shared experience. Some workshops or support groups focus almost exclusively on the “what’s wrong in our lives” as a means of perpetuating change. But, this too, leaves us looking for, and expecting things to go wrong, making our reactions acceptable.
Some of us also learned early on, that when we get upset SOMETIMES people pay attention to us and give us what we want. Many business owners would swear that nothing would get done without their strong reactions. With a significant other, getting upset when we don’t get what we want, often influences our partner to change. Perhaps these habits are engrained within us and spring out regardless of its effectiveness. Is it really the best way?
So, if we aren’t reacting to traffic, long lines, dirty diapers, rude or incompetent people, or spouses who fall short of our expectations, what would we do instead?
1. Get present. When we react, we get caught up in emotions and thoughts that take us away from the situation at hand. Our reaction is often related to survival. It’s almost never a true life or death situation. Stop for a minute. Clear your mind. Reconnect to your body. Reconnect with the present moment by engaging your senses. Focus on what you appreciate here in THIS moment. When we “get present,” it’s easier to remind ourselves that “we are okay, right now in this moment.” From here, you can objectively look at your present circumstances, and make a new powerful choice.
2. Reality Check. Realize “what IS” and “what can be changed”? Once present, let’s do a reality check. Sometimes there are options. And, sometimes it’s about surrendering to what is. If we’re “in reaction,” seeing the alternatives is tougher. This is why a reality check is so important. As long as we’re in reaction, by definition, we’ll be fighting the reality of the situation. It’s ALWAYS more powerful to align with “what is” first and foremost.
In traffic, is there a faster alternative route or is it time to surrender to bumper to bumper traffic? Is there a faster line? Can you come back another time? Or is this an opportunity to choose peace? Is there an alternative? If not, then CHOOSING a more peaceful alternative is best.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
3. Choices, Choices, Choices. There are always more choices than we realize — in ANY moment. Even when we don’t think we have a choice, we have a choice.
As I realized I was committed to driving down Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour – with no exits – what were my choices? Be upset and frustrated? Or, to consciously relax my body, take in the experience, notice everything there was to notice, and catch up on some phone calls?
In line, I’ve struck up conversations with others, or just used the time as a moment to relax, breathe and not do anything. Sometimes just being entertained by other people’s frustration is enough.
With a dirty diaper, this may be an opportunity to connect with and care intimately for your baby. Some women cherish changing diapers, knowing it’s a short phase that will soon be over.
When someone is rude, get fascinated and curious about it. Look at it with amusement. Are they having a bad day? Are you? Perhaps compassion is a resource to access. Someone didn’t follow through with a job. What are your alternatives?
4. Choose Peace. There are a variety of actions and options available in nearly every circumstance, and the over-riding choice is an emotional one. Once aware of a habitual reaction, are you choosing to stay in frustration in attempt to “control” the situation, or are you willing to “choose peace” and align with the situation? Once we choose to surrender to traffic, the long-line, the dirty diaper, or any situation, challenge yourself to find peace in your body. With intention, comes the experience. The more you practice finding peace in everyday life, the easier it becomes to find peace in the more challenging moments.
One of the most challenging habits I’m working on breaking completely is in relationship. Granted, partners aren’t always going to live into our expectations. Recently, I’ve found myself questioning my impulsive reaction to “shut down,” “get upset” or otherwise “withdraw love” when my fiancé doesn’t magically respond the way I want him to. These are meager attempts to control or influence the situation, or perhaps resistance to communicating feelings. They are conditioned reflexes or habits, until made conscious. I asked myself, “Am I willing to choose love or peace, now?” From this space, new communication flows. While not always instantaneous, the intention to “choose peace” ultimately results in a releasing of the upset, and the fabulous state of inner peace returns again.
SOULFUL CHALLENGE: Notice when you are reacting out of habit, and challenge yourself to consciously choose a new way to respond to the situation. Play with it. Share your experience with us by emailing me firstname.lastname@example.org.