The difference between the two words, reacting and responding, can be very subtle. In the context of psychology though, knowing the difference between the two will make or break you.
When I react to someone or some event, I do so typically without conscious thought. A child cries, I cringe. My spouse yells, I yell back. Someone accuses me of something, I become defensive. Someone hurts me, I withdrawal in silence. Reacting is usually ugly, and I am not happy with myself or how others react to my reaction. It tends to be very circular in nature. The arguments can go on forever when people are reacting because the reacting never ends, especially when both people in the argument are both reacting. It is like a ping pong match.
Reaction does not usually come from our wise self or even our cortex (the area of the brain that allows conscious consideration). Reaction typically is fueled by the unconscious limbic system at the very center of the brain. The limbic system keeps us (and animals) alive. It is not concerned with kindness, compassion, or the fact that people might not like our reactions. Reactions are meant to keep us alive: grabbing a child before they fall down the stairs, swerving the car to miss someone who drifted into your lane, or screaming to warn someone to look out if they are in danger. Reactions are great for battle and even sports. Very little time is required for a reaction (we are talking milliseconds). When we react, we are really stepping into warrior mode, ready for fight, flight or faint.
However, as our society has become more sophisticated our brains have not caught up to the fact that we are not in constant danger and survival isn’t a daily challenge. Reactions now occur in socially unacceptable situations and they are really hard to control (not impossible though). Teenagers tend to be clear examples of how reactions can mess with your relationships. For example, a girl gets wildly triggered by her boyfriend talking to another girl. Instead of admitting she feels vulnerable and expressing this to her boyfriend, she might let her jealousy get the best of her. She might let her boyfriend have it without even knowing what they were talking about (maybe they were partnered to work together on a project for class). Maybe she stuffs her feelings of jealousy down and then takes it out on her parents when she gets home (my favorite).
Adults are just as bad as teenagers except they are just more sophisticated (usually). We know when we are in reaction because we feel it. I typically become enraged internally, meaning I am judging the crap out of someone, or deeply hurt, meaning I am taking something very personal. “How could they do that to me?” “I can’t believe they said that!” “Bad things always happen to me.” “I am so stupid.” “I never get a break.” On and on these faulty beliefs run around in our heads like unsupervised two year olds after eating three cupcakes. We also have violated my two golden rules: 1. Don’t judge. 2. Don’t take anything personally.
Believe it or not, you can regain control of the wild stories running your life. Sometimes we do not even know these stories are running us. Identifying the underlying cause of your reaction (which is usually wildly out of sync with the trigger) is the key. Once you become aware of your faulty thought and its origin, you can freely choose how you would like to respond, not react.
Sometimes we can identify our own faulty thoughts. Sometimes our closest friends and partners will tell us our faulty thoughts because they are so familiar with them and typically impacted by them. We don’t see it, but they do. We are terrible self observers. Our brains were wired to evaluate others not ourselves. It served an evolutionary purpose back in the day to quickly determine if a new person was dangerous or not, but in today’s world, this wiring is working against us.
When we are really stuck (meaning we are unable or unwilling to let go of a faulty thought like, “People cannot be trusted.”), we need to go work with an expert in the field of the human psyche. This is a good thing. It means you are willing to dig deep, be brave, and become more of your true self.
We want to move into the land of responding to people and situations. We will look very Zen to the rest of the world. We might always have a trigger, but we may not react so wildly as we once did. And, over time, as we practice, we may only need to take a deep breath and the yucky feelings of reaction will dissipate and make way for our wise self to step in and discern what is in our best interest.
When I respond, I do so without the emotional charge of the reaction. Responding comes from the wise, grounded me, not the wildly triggered me. I am calm and collected when I respond. I can use my wisdom and discernment. The outcome from a response is typically very positive versus the fallout from a reaction.
If someone does not like my response, I do not need to take it personally. I am being responsible for myself and my emotions. I can send the other person some love and empathy knowing how hard it is not to react. If I start judging their reaction, I know I am sliding down the slippery slope back into my own reaction.
Resist the urge to react. Respond instead. Notice how respond and responsible are very similar words...