Transforming Reactions into Responses

While I am away from my blog, I am honored to showcase a group of talented writers who have stepped forward with their unique voices in support. Every guest writer who is featured here is one that I strongly suggest you follow. Today, I am please to share with you this guest post from Melissa at The New Mommy Files: Memories, Milestones, and Missteps. I would greatly appreciate it if you would stop by her blog and leave some comment love.
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Responding to a smile is easy to do :)

Responding to a smile is easy to do :)

It feels a bit funny to write about parenting topics sometimes, because it makes it sound as though I have it all together. I do not have it all together, but that is precisely what motivates me to keep learning. One of the most helpful things I have learned as a parent to date has to do with reacting vs. responding. Before I share with you on the subject, let’s take a look at the meanings of these two words. The following definitions come from merriam-webster.com:

react
1. to exert a reciprocal or counteracting force or influence —often used with on or upon
2. to change in response to a stimulus
3. to act in opposition to a force or influence —usually used with against
4. to move or tend in a reverse direction

respond
1. to say something in return
2. make an answer
3. to react in response
4. to show favorable reaction
5. to be answerable

While the words are listed as synonyms, looking closely reveals subtle, but important differences. When we react, we take some action, usually one that is intended to counter the thing that we’re reacting to. We may react to yelling by yelling back, or react to change with attempts to stop what is happening. When we respond, we acknowledge what we see and give an answer, but do not necessarily feel a need to counter what we’re responding to.

The trouble with acting against a stimulus, or reacting, is that we cannot change what has already occurred. We may leap forward with a look of horror and snatch our babies up when they fall, but this does not change the fact that they have fallen. Acting against the flow of our experiences hinders our ability to take them in and learn from them. Reactions are often quick and thoughtless, taking our focus away from what we’re feeling and needing in the moment and placing it instead on countering something that is already in the past.

In contrast, the beauty of responding is that it allows us to give what is needed from us in a situation, or simply take it in if nothing is needed. On seeing our babies fall down, we may notice our own worry and fear and respond to it by taking a deep breath as we watch the child for signs of what they need from us, in the moment. If they are needing comfort, we can calmly scoop them up. If they have already recovered on their own, a physical response may not be needed and we can simply feel happiness for the child who is learning to bounce back from a challenging experience, and relief that they are not seriously hurt.

The “don’t freak out when your child hurts themselves” rule is a well-known one in parenting, but it serves as a good example of the difference between responding mindfully and reacting mindlessly. The same principles of accepting what has happened, acknowledging our feelings about it, and responding in whatever way is needed, can be applied in countless situations. When we see siblings or friends beginning to fight over a toy we can notice our own tension and concern over the situation and then watch for clues to what is needed from us. With my own child, I often see that within the few seconds it takes me to really take the situation in, she and the other child have already solved their own problem. Instead of focusing my energy on fixing, or countering the situation, I have learned about my child and her ability to solve problems and I’m left with positive feelings about her and her abilities.

Oftentimes I find that my reactions are me-focused. My husband says something that leaves me feeling upset or offended, and I bounce back with a statement that is intended to show him how wrong he is, and by extension, how right I am. My daughter and another child are having a minor conflict, and I step in too early out of a sense that I need to somehow prove myself as a pro-active parent who always responds appropriately. When I react, I often rob myself of an opportunity to learn from a situation by hi-jacking it and making it all about me. When I remember to slow down and respond mindfully, I actually become more in tune with myself and my needs and usually find that I am enriched by having fully taken the situation in.

I have a habit of debating, and a very bothersome desire to be right all the time, so many of my reactions come during conflicts with others. I have noticed that I often ‘get what I want’ by reacting in a way that shows what I perceive as another’s incorrectness, but I generally end up regretting this in the end. I get what I thought I wanted, but at someone else’s expense. When I slow down and respond mindfully, considerately, I usually still manage to come to an acceptable solution, but I also benefit from having genuinely connected with another person.

Many reactions are instinctual and, in times of danger or distress they can be extremely valuable, but others get between us and our experiences. When we take the time to respond mindfully instead of reacting thoughtlessly, we can connect with our own feelings as well as the needs of others. Accepting what has already happened and observing what is happening in the moment gives us the opportunity to learn from and be fully present with each experience.

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What has been your experience with moving from reacting to responding? Is there a particular situation that you find you react to out of instinct, for better or worse? How has taking an extra breath to respond mindfully worked for you? I’d love to know.

Melissa started blogging at The New Mommy Files when her firstborn was just three months old, but has found that no matter how familiar the mommy label becomes there is always something new to discover. She shares stories, thoughts, ideas, and inspiration from her journey on facebook and twitter as well as on her blog. In addition to mothering, topics that come up often include Montessori philosophy, elimination communication and cloth diapering, veganism, and finding a rhythm and balance in everyday life.

8 thoughts on “Transforming Reactions into Responses

  1. “When I react, I often rob myself of an opportunity to learn from a situation by hi-jacking it and making it all about me.” – I do this ALL the time! And you’re so right – it takes so much away from the redemption of a situation.

    I would love to be the type of person who responds, rather than reacts…I will be keeping your words in mind for sure Melissa. :)

    Also speaking to your first sentence – I know it can be assumed that bloggers are ‘experts’ or consider themselves to be, but for me I just see us all as on a learning journey together, and love that we can share our stories and take what speaks to us and learn from one another as part of a community. I think any parent who is on that path does have amazing wisdom – and that doesn’t necessarily entail ‘having it all together’ – but it’s worthwhile all the same. So all that to say I am so glad you are willing to share! :)

    • Ah, I love your thoughts on this virtual community of parents and our parallel learning journeys – and I’m so glad you’re part of mine. Thanks, Kelly!

  2. Wonderful post Melissa! Being mindful has certainly made a difference between my reactions vs. responses. And practice. Oh my goodness, the more I practiced at holding my tongue and just waiting for reactive emotions to dissipate, the better I seemed to get. Of course how tired I am, how hungry, moody, etc. has a say in how I do either. Now I am trying to help the kids learn this too. There is no mistake my daughter has a harder time with reactivity than my son. By design perhaps? As women are we suppose to have heightened sensitivities to reacting and responding? Hmmm. As usual, you made me think :).

    • That’s a really interesting question, M.J. Definitely something to ponder – you always make ME think these things through even more, so I’m thankful for your input.

  3. This is such a great guest post, Melissa! I totally do notice the subtle differences between react and respond even in the dictionary definitions, but it is much easier to understand the difference between the two when they are laid out in this way.

I love comments and try to reply to each one. I look forward to connecting with you. Namaste

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