Do you ever struggle with how or why you handle situations in relationships the way that you do? I know I do. I often find myself reacting with a level of intensity to a particular situation in the office or at home in ways that, frankly, I find disturbing. It makes me back up and question what’s really going on inside of me. And that’s not all bad.
We need to pay attention to what’s going on inside of us because it helps us better understand why we do what we do. The sorting process is messy to say the least. It’s often convoluted and not nearly as definitive as I’d like. But isn’t that how most of life is—messier than we ever expected it to be?
So at the risk of sounding reductionistic or overly simplistic (I hope that’s not the case), here’s what I’ve observed in myself and in others that has been helpful. I look at how I tend to handle things with these two categories in mind: reactions vs. responses.
Reactions are more often than not my emotional reflex to a particular situation. My reactions can range anywhere from wildly excited and exuberant celebrations over good events to clenched-teeth, tight-lipped anger when things don’t go my way—and everything in between.
Reactions don’t feel like choices. They’re just there, such as when I flinch or reflexively tense up when I think I’m going to get hit. If something comes flying at my face, my reaction is to blink. I don’t think about it. I just do it. It’s a natural (and sometimes learned) self-protective reaction to a perceived threat.
Reaction is often used in the field of chemistry to describe what happens when certain chemical compounds are mixed together in specific proportions. The result is a chemical reaction. And while our emotions do stir chemicals within us, our reactions are not merely reduced to chemical responses within the body. The soul—the immaterial part that mysteriously makes us us—is involved in how we react to situations we face.
Responses, on the other hand, are more conviction- or belief-driven ways we handle relationships. It’s not that they are devoid of emotions, but that they are not driven solely by feelings. More reasoning takes place so that it’s a measured and thoughtful response to either positive or negative circumstances.
First response teams are a good example of responding vs. reacting. Response teams undergo training so that they are equipped to efficiently handle stressful emergency situations when needed. First responders follow predetermined protocol and strategies to maximize effectiveness under difficult situations where others tend to freeze up because of the emotions they feel.
Now don’t get me wrong. First responders do have emotions. They feel a lot, but they are driven by their training and protocols. They’ve been trained to set aside their emotions until after the threatening situation has been stabilized.
The apostle Paul reminds us that what we think about ahead of time—things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable—will shape how we handle relationships: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9, emphasis added).
So when it comes to relationships and evaluating how you’ll respond when challenging situations arise (and you know they will), ask yourself these questions: “Am I responding or am I reacting? Are my emotions driving my reaction to a particular individual or event I perceive as threatening, or are my beliefs driving my response?”
We’ll never be able to discern whether we’re reacting or responding to situations unless we start paying attention to what’s going on inside us. So that’s my challenge to you. Are you in? Let me know what you discover about yourself and what you found helpful.