©2008 Joan M. Newcomb
A few years ago I learned to react dramatically, even if events seem dramatic! It started off with some fairly easy lessons that came from being in two plays simultaneously. Anyone who has been involved in theatre knows that often there’s more drama going on backstage than out in front of the audience! In times’ past, I would have been in the thick of it, emotionally belly flopping from one interaction to another. Yet this time I found myself being ‘at choice’ about whether to react or respond.
Reacting is allowing something outside oneself to initiate one’s actions. Responding is initiating an action from within to whatever if happing outside. Using one of the plays as an example, I came into the dressing room one night and someone made a comment. This comment could have hurt my feelings if I’d reacted to it. Instead I made note of it, chose not to say anything, and went about preparing for my role. Who knows why that person said what they did? On a performance night, nerves are high, emotions are on edge, and things pop out of people’s mouths, bypassing their brains. If I’d reacted, it could have caused a ricochet of bad feelings bouncing all around the cast. Instead I didn’t take it personally, I chose not to let it in nor influence me, so I had the energy to focus on what I needed to do that night.
It’s amazing how many things don’t need to be reacted to, and don’t even need to be responded to right away. Once I received an inflammatory email from a family member, and I took three days to respond. I had to read the email three times to decipher the message from the emotional attack of the words. It was then fairly easy to give a clear response without creating an argument.
Sometimes it’s events that seem dramatic. I had a weekend a while back where several things converged – it was the final performances of a previous play, the final days of a parent’s visit, the middle of a health concern for me and I also happened to be moving that Sunday. That Saturday night I came home to discover my dog had been poisoned, requiring me to take the last ferry to Seattle from the island I live on, drive to Tacoma to an all-night animal hospital, and drive to Port Orchard to take the first ferry back onto the island, just in time to meet the movers. Somewhere in the midst of all that driving, I wondered how I was going to manage it all, when I found myself sayings, ‘this isn’t a crises, it’s an event!” Somehow reframing it in a different term helped me deal with it by responding rather than reacting to each successive thing needed of me.
As often happens with life learnings, once you learn the initial lesson, you’re given opportunities to practice your skills on an ever increasing level. When my plays finished, I got to practice my responding rather reacting with the house I was renting and the house’s owner. As the roof began leaking, the dryer broke, black mold appeared throughout the house, and the front door fell apart, without any repairs being made, I had many chances to curb my reactions and eventually responded by choosing to move.
Responding rather than reacting means that I’ve taken time to be clear about how I’m viewing the situation. I give myself time to notice whether I’m looking at things through ‘slides of the past’ or through the clear window of the present moment. It doesn’t mean not having the emotions that may come up; it just means not responding with ones especially if they’re particularly overwhelming. I find that if I’m having overwhelming feelings, there’s a good chance they’re coming up from past events rather than what’s happening right in front of me. I give myself time either to sit with the feelings, meditate and journal about them, or distract myself by exercising, watching a funny movie, etc., until I’ve gained clarity about what’s going on inside me.
With the lesson is around health, I believe there is tremendous creativity between symptoms and diagnosis and that it’s possible to completely transform results before they happen. Instead of being on an emotional roller coaster, exacerbated by my own imagination, choosing to respond from a more grounded place and so far it’s been working.