Act, Don’t React
by Ken Chapman, Ph.D.
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The great American humorist, Will Rogers once said, “Life is hard under the best of conditions, but it is harder if you are stupid.” I do not think that Will Rogers was talking about people who are terminally dumb. I think, instead, that he had in mind those moments when we all make decisions that make our lives more difficult, even complicated.
It is probably fair to say that we all go through periods of time when it seems like our lives resemble a soap opera, either through endless crises or confrontations. While crisis and confrontation may be entertaining on television, they make for a frustrating and fairly unsatisfying personal and professional life. Most of us would rather have some peace of mind rather than daily drama. And if we would have more peace of mind and less drama in our lives, we simply have to take charge of the script. We have to learn to act instead of just reacting to what goes on around us. We have to make deliberate choices about how we are going to look at things and, most of all, how we are going to respond to the events that are beyond our control. The fact is that most people simply react without thinking, especially in situations in which they feel hassled or threatened.
We are constantly responding to the stimuli in our environment — an annoying co-worker, a whining child, a grumpy spouse. Instead of considering what is really going on or the most constructive way to respond, it is very tempting simply to lash out in ways that are not very helpful.
Of course this usually results in negative consequences. If another person is involved, the result is likely to be hurt feelings, angry responses, or out and out resistance. Then again, it is also true that some of us have this difficulty even when we are alone. We will sometimes let circumstances control us instead of the other way around. For example, we find ourselves caught in traffic and we feel powerless, so we make ourselves miserable with anger and frustration. It would be a far more constructive response, (that is a chosen response on our part), to force ourselves, conscientiously if necessary, to think about more constructive things. We could make a list of the things we will do when we get out of the traffic. We could give some thought to the things that maybe we need to think through more carefully while we have the time to do so. We could make use of captive down time rather than fuming about the delay in our day. We have to learn to separate what we can control from what we cannot control. And certainly the traffic that we find ourselves in is something that we can rarely control.
The fact is that we cannot control other people and often cannot control the circumstances around us. All we can do is choose our response. We can only control how we respond and we have to focus on that and that alone.
If we want to reduce the amount of drama and stress in our lives and increase the peace, we have to stop simply reacting and begin choosing our actions. A good place to begin is to reflect on what is working in our lives and what is not. In the big picture, we have to be willing to consider what behavior has been getting us where we want to be and what behaviors have been hindering our progress. Here are some more strategies that can help each of us be more active and less reactive.
1. Make a daily to-do list. We should start each day by planning what we want to do and by setting priorities. Even if we do not get everything done, the process is important. It gives us a sense of control and a sense of accomplishment when the day is done.
2. We have to maximize our physical health. Being at our best emotionally and physically will increase our sense of self-confidence and our sense of control. A healthy diet, regular physical activity, and enough sleep all help us feel up to the daily challenges we face.
3. Get a handle on anger. We may have a right to be angry about any number of things, but we do not have a right to act destructively on what we feel. We have to be willing to take time out to walk away until we get hold of ourselves.
4. Let go of resentment. Carrying around old grievances is like keeping a ten-pound weight tied around our neck. You do not have to forgive old wrongs, but you can accept them and move on. It is not necessarily going to benefit the other person, but it will benefit us to a great extent.
5. Learn to listen. Listening gives us power because it helps us learn more about the other person. It puts us in a better position to create a win-win relationship.
6. Speak respectfully to everyone. Simple courtesy sets the stage for constructive interactions. We should consider how others will respond to what we have to say. If it is likely to cause hurt or anger, we might want to find a more positive way to make our point or express our opinions.
7. Give others the benefit of the doubt. If someone in the express check-out line has a couple of extra items, forget it. If we make it our problem, it will haunt us the rest of the day.
8. Count our blessings. Reminding ourselves about the good things in our lives is a great way to feel more competent and confident. It also gives us a good, peaceful center out of which to work.
It is very easy for any one of us to lead lives that are ripe for stress. But if we would have peace rather than drama, we have to take time to claim some happiness. We have to be willing to pause long enough to do things as simple as kiss a spouse, hug our children, or whatever else might help to center us and give us a sense of confidence about our lives.
The bottom line — if we want to enjoy a sense of peace in our lives, we have to let go of anger and resentment, bring a sense of purpose to our daily activities, and be willing to count our blessings, to be grateful for what is right in our lives. This best done by “choosing” how we will act, not by merely “reacting.”