A few weeks ago I was having a lovely Sunday morning when I got an unexpected text message from an ex I hadn’t spoken to in months. He didn’t say anything vulnerable, he just told me that he’d run a couple of 5Ks and had lost weight, but hearing from him literally made my heart ache.
My immediate reaction was, “Why are you telling me this?” and a less thoughtful version of myself would have said exactly that to him. I didn’t choose that this time; instead I went and did some of the gardening I needed to do before winter and raked up some of the leaves. Two hours later, he sent another playful message and my brain went “WHAT THE F***?”
Thankfully, a few minutes later another friend asked if I wanted to meet up, so I gave myself some time to really process what, if anything, this man was trying to say to me. I was confused – we broke up, and I told him friendship wasn’t for me. We’d broken up and gotten back together before, so was this an attempt at that from him? If it was, why wouldn’t he just say so?
That whole train of thought was my reaction to the situation. I could have said all of that to him, but instead I chose to get present to myself and respond based on what I needed. So, a few hours later, I told him that I was really happy for him, that I would always be cheering for him, but that I’m not available for friendship because it hurts.
It’s taken me a lot of work to get to the point where I can sit with my feelings and choose outside of them. Of course I was curious and I wanted to know what his motives were. I also want to stay true to my needs and the life I’m creating every day. This meant that I had to choose to set a boundary, and this time I did it with love and not from a desperate need to protect myself.
In this way, I chose to respond. I could have responded by ignoring it and going about my day. Another response would have been to ask what this was all about, and share the impact he was having on me. All of those would have been excellent responses so long as they were aligned with my needs and goals.
More often than not responses and reactions are in line; the difference is in where you’re coming from when you choose. Are you following an impulse? Are you choosing powerfully?
For me, the biggest clue that I’m reacting is my body. My senses are on high alert, my breathing is shallow, I don’t think (as much) about what I say, and I am probably trying to fix something. I know I’m responding when I can breathe, I’m true to myself, and the sense of immediacy dissipates. I can still be urgent when I’m responding, but my communication doesn’t come from my need to fix it.
Do you know when you’re reacting? What is the difference between responding and reacting for you?