Reacting vs. Choosing

The Power of Noticing: Reacting or Choosing?

One of the most helpful things I practice is noticing whether I’m reacting or choosing.

Perhaps surprisingly, this works better for me as a first-step practice than focusing on my needs, because so often my perceptions of what I need are distorted by the discomfort, fear, and/or pain I’m feeling.

It’s not that there aren’t real needs — a genuine reaching for thriving — underneath whatever’s going on for me. It’s that when I’m reacting, I’m not clear enough about what my needs really are, to be able to trust the strategies that I come up with to try to meet them. So often what I think I need when I’m upset is really just a form of defense, and the last thing I want to do is pick (more) strategies that feed my defenses and continue to keep me unaware of what I’m truly needing. (Especially strategies that involve getting other people to be somehow different than they are.) I know that being unaware of what I’m really needing, and/or thinking that other people are more responsible than I am for whether I’m receiving what I need, is what’s causing all my pain in the first place.

So, paradoxically, to best meet my needs, sometimes it works best to NOT focus on identifying my needs, as my first step. It also helps to NOT defend my right to get my needs met, as a first step. What does help as a first step is to firmly ask myself, “right now:

  • am I reacting, or am I Choosing?
  • am I “on automatic” and feeling some urgency, or am I in a mindful, intentional, relatively peaceful place?
  • am I complaining or blaming (wanting someone else to be, say, or do something different), or am I noticing what’s happening and feeling compassion for myself and the other person?
  • am I feeling fear or pain that I “have to” get relief from, or am I able to stay present, let myself have my experience, feel whatever my discomfort is, and inquire calmly and compassionately into it?

I ask myself these questions because I know that I can’t make choices that genuinely contribute to my well-being and to my life (relationship, health, home environment, work) from a state of fear, upset, blame, urgency, or anything else that’s reactive or “automatic.” From these states of being I can’t even understand clearly what’s really happening, either inside or outside of me.

So, when I realize that these reactive kinds of states are “driving my bus” in the moment, I know the most helpful thing I can do is simply stop and disengage from whatever I’m thinking, saying, or doing. I don’t want to make any choices from these kinds of places, because those reactive choices tend to make things worse. Often the only thing that really makes a positive difference for me is returning to that mindful, intentional, relatively peaceful place within me that can make authentic choices that truly serve me and my life.

Once I’ve brought myself back to that place, my suffering stops almost as if it’s been turned off by a switch, and I can authentically, powerfully, effectively say “yes” or “no” or make requests or do whatever is called for, to contribute to my well-being and support my thriving: to meet my genuine needs.

There are many awarenesses and skills in life that serve us deeply. Noticing whether I’m reacting or choosing has been one of the simplest, easiest, and most empowering.

Please share your own experiences of reacting vs. choosing!

Blessings on us all,

Thriving Life