A Habit Worth Breaking: Living Reactively

Have you ever had a great day ruined by a thoughtless comment or unexpected event? Your favorite aunt tells you that you look like you’ve put on a few pounds since she last saw you, and you tell yourself you’re a failure. Or you step on the scale to find that your weight has not budged a bit, despite your best efforts at healthful eating, and you find yourself binging on potato chips an hour later, telling yourself that you’ll never lose weight anyway, so you might as well eat. When we experience difficult feelings such as disappointment, or an unexpected slight by a relative or friend, many of us immediately react with disparaging thoughts about our self-worth, deservedness, and competence. These thoughts (which often remain unconscious, particularly if we are in the habit of stuffing them down with food) can lead us to act in ways that don’t serve us. What looks like a loss of motivation, or even self-sabotage, is often simply the consequence of reacting too quickly and missing out on valuable perspective.

Reactions tend to be based upon pure emotion, and the specific thoughts that drive them may remain outside of our awareness if we don’t take the time to investigate. By choosing instead to slow down, become aware of and accountable for our feelings, thoughts, and self-talk, we gain the power to respond to circumstances and events with kindness and compassion for ourselves, and in accordance with our true values. Reacting vs. responding sounds like a minor distinction, but the results you experience when you choose to respond, rather than react, to feelings and events in your life can be amazing.

Your New Habit: Responding, rather than Reacting

The difference between reacting and responding is mindfulness, also known as non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment. You can train yourself to be mindful and respond with awareness to circumstances and events that trigger negative self-talk by doing the following:

  1. slow down
  2. speak compassionately to yourself (honor your feelings and perspectives)
  3. identify (name) your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations
  4. consider what is important to you and how you wish to feel, think, and behave (your values)
  5. take responsibility for and control of your actions, including your self-talk
  6. choose to respond to circumstances and events by speaking to yourself respectfully and then behaving mindfully in accordance with your personal values.

Rather than reacting with, “I can’t believe that I have gained __ pounds! I have no willpower! I’ll never reach my goals,” and experiencing the feelings of hopelessness and despair that come with those reactive thoughts, you can choose to slow down, be compassionate with yourself, and learn from your feelings of fear and despair, if that is what you are experiencing. In this way, you gain access to what is really going on for you. When you choose to be curious about what the number on the scale means to you, and what you are telling yourself about it, you learn about your values as well as your needs. By slowing down you might discover that “I am afraid that this number means that I am powerless to reach my health goals.” You might respond to the feelings that stepping on the scale brings up by saying something like, “I am disappointed in the number on the scale, but that number does not change anything about my worth or deservedness of kindness, love, and excellent self-care. I am committed to and capable of taking excellent care of myself, no matter what the scale says, and so I am going to be kind to myself, take a relaxing walk, and eat nourishing food when I am hungry instead of punishing myself with negative self-talk and mindless eating.”

How would your life be different if you chose to respond, rather than react, to your life circumstances and events?

Signs of Success:

  1. You understand yourself better, feel less fearful, more relaxed and in control of your life.
  2. You begin to look for answers within yourself, rather than in the form of a diet or punishing exercise.
  3. When you experience challenging circumstances and emotions, you find yourself curious about what is going on in your mind.  
  4. Your self-talk, or internal dialogue, becomes kinder and calmer.
  5. Based upon what you learn when you choose to break the habit of reacting, you may choose to measure your progress in certain areas differently.

To continue with the earlier example, as you make progress in becoming more curious and less reactive, you might identify that caring for your health is an important value for you. You might also become aware that reacting to a number on the scale or to your aunt’s thoughtless comment by saying mean or discouraging things to yourself interferes with your commitment to eating, managing stress, and exercising in a way that supports your health. You may realize that while you may not have complete control over your weight on any given day, you can choose to prioritize your health by committing to appreciate your body and treat yourself well at all times. Your daily thoughts, self-talk, behaviors, and choices to persist in treating yourself well can reflect this commitment no matter what else is going on in your life. You don’t have to do this perfectly, of course. Awareness is the first step toward progress, and baby steps become big steps with practice.  

I hope this post has been helpful to you.

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