|RESPONDING WITH JUDGMENTS VS. REACTING WITH
Terry D. Cooper
I AM REVEALED
Dec 27 2011
If I were going to name the biggest daily challenge of life it would be learning to respond rather than react. When I'm
reacting, I'm not working from my centeredness in grace. Instead, I'm allowing outside factors to control my behavior.
And much of the time, my reaction is judgmental.
As a rule, judgmentalism does react rather than respond. Judgmentalism is almost always controlled by outside
factors. When we become judgmental, we are often controlled by the very groups we fight. Outside enemies control
our agenda. We can't leave them alone. They determine our thinking in that we must rail against them. We become far
more able to tell others what we are against, rather than what we are for. We may feel pushed around and our
paranoid defensiveness may snarl with yet another rebuke of something. We must condemn. Thus, we are not free to
initiate, share or offer our perspective. We are compulsively driven to conquer anything that does not look like us!
THE ROOTS OF REACTIVITY
Cognitive therapist Aaron Beck offers some insight into how we become so reactionary. As a cognitive psychiatrist,
Beck believes that emotional disturbance results from distorted thinking. In other words, our tendencies to think in
exaggerated, irrational ways sets us up for unnecessary emotional distress. Our feelings follow our thoughts, and so if
we want to heal our feelings, we should look at the underlying thought processes that have created them. So distorted
thinking creates disturbed feelings. These disturbed feelings then push us into a reactionary mode. This is certainly
not to suggest that feelings are bad, but it is to suggest that feelings are the results of prior acts of interpretation.
According to Beck, when we feel threatened, we often regress to a more "primitive" way of thinking. Beck believes that
early in human history it was very important for us to quickly assess a situation and react with a snap judgment. This
was essential to our survival. We had to determine whether someone was a friend or foe. Rapid thinkers survived;
slower, calculating thinkers often did not. So in that world, making fast judgments born out of an "us" and "them"
mentality was crucial. Being physically threatened necessitated this type of thinking.
The problem, however, is that we learned this way of surviving too well. In other words, even when we are not physically
threatened, we easily fall back into this adaptive mode of thinking. In fact, when we feel emotionally or psychologically
threatened, it is easy to revert to this primitive thinking process. The problem, of course, is that these psychological
threats are of a completely different nature. We are not really in danger even though our minds tend to automatically
prepare us for attack. Our higher-level thinking, which is located in the neocortex, is important for us to be able to
consider options and think creatively in the face of differences and conflicts with others, but our primal thinking crowds
out the possibility of engaging in this higher-order thinking.
Another aspect of reactive thinking is that it is highly egocentric. In other words, when we feel threatened we often
become quite obsessed with ourselves and our own safety. While self-interest is important, in the face of threat we can
become preoccupied with how everything affects us. All data is assessed quickly and egocentrically. Exaggerated
thinking promotes excessive anxiety, which pushes us toward reactionary judgmentalism. We think in highly biased
ways: we are righteous, and the other person is evil; we are the victims, and they are the victimizers; we are 100 percent
innocent, and they are completely guilty; we must attack the enemy because they are trying to attack us.
In table 4, I have summarized the basic differences between responding and reacting. I encourage readers to examine
their own patterns. If you are like me, you will find that you react far more often than you'd like.
If I am responding, I will speak and act from a sense of centeredness: my actions will result from an inner sense of
choice. I won't be provoked into action, "made" angry or "set off" by someone's remark. I will live in my own skin and be
fully responsible for my actions. However, if I react I will normally be preoccupied with having the final word, telling
someone off or making sure they know I'm right.
If I'm responding to others, I will respect their boundaries as I voice my concerns, offer suggestions or share my own
experience. I will regularly remind myself that I'm not behind the steering wheel of their lives. When I'm reacting,
though, I don't respect these boundaries; I attempt to manipulate, dominate or coerce them into my viewpoint.
When I'm responding, I can be aware of what I'm feeling but not necessarily allow those feelings to dictate my response.
While I do not deny my feelings, neither am I utterly controlled by them. Again, my responses are deliberate and
voluntary. When I'm reacting, on the other hand, my intense feelings are pushing my buttons and I lose control. I can't
seem to separate my feelings from how I want to respond. I think emotionally. Thus, flooded with emotions, I act without
much thinking. My behavior is involuntary and often exaggerated.
When I'm responding, my behavior results from internal decision and conviction. I am not controlled by external factors
that make up my mind for me. I pause, consider and reflect. I refuse a knee-jerk reaction. Conversely, my reactivity
emerges from external stress and pressure. I simply must attack. In reality, however, my reactivity is normally based on
fairly shaky attitudes or beliefs.
When I'm responding, I recognize that many perspectives exist and that there is often more than one way to do things. I
will also look at the context of someone else's life. Then again, when I'm reactive, I'm often demanding that others think
as I think and do everything my way. I may judge their entire being on the basis of one decision or act.
RESPONSE-ABLE ASSERTIVENESS VS. REACTIONARY AGGRESSION
If we hope to become less judgmental, it is essential that we work on our own levels of reactivity. And in order to
improve our ability to be responsive, rather than reactive, it is important to understand our patterns of anger.
Clearly, many of us are uncomfortable with feelings of anger. We think anger is an ugly feeling. We may have seen
unfortunate things happen when people got angry, so we've decided to not go there. We may have confused the
emotion of anger with aggressive behavior. Therefore, anger has become a negative emotion, one we should live
above. We may eat our anger, deny our irritations and sweep our frustrations under the rug of denial.
Also, we may believe that if we get angry, others may reject or abandon us. Because security is so important, we may
not run the risk of being honest about even our persistent feelings of anger. Phoniness is the price we pay for this
security. We may well become a doormat and a very nonassertive person. We may feel both an internal and external
pressure to constantly please, win favor and be agreeable. This leads to conflict-phobia. Differences between
ourselves and others are very threatening. We become preoccupied with nurturing our relationships at the expense of
being genuine. The goals of maintaining harmony is turned into a god. We may maintain a reputation as an
"easygoing Joe," a "patient professional" or a "never-angry representative of eternal kindness." We may confuse
nurture with false comfort; humility with self-deprecation; being dependable with being used; being gentle with being a
pushover. Lack of self approval pushes us toward a frantic need for the approval of others. Our self-esteem is always
in someone else's hands.
I also need to regularly remind myself that if I am not comfortable with my own anger, I will probably downplay, minimize
or avoid someone else's anger. If I am phony and do not admit my anger, I may well invite others into a pretentiously
sweet, anger-free relationship. I may indeed indirectly communicate that anger is off-limits, or that our relationship
could not survive anyone getting angry.
Yet anger is very hard to permanently ignore. Perhaps what happens to the majority of us is that we keep storing our
anger in the basement until one day we explode. The explosion is often an exaggeration because it is based on an
accumulation of emotion. The buildup is so strong that we bypass assertiveness and move straight into aggression. By
not addressing issues when they come up, we end up with a slush fund that demands a loud outburst. We've stockpiled
the anger, and it is all coming out at once. We've tried to be too "nice" and now realize that we must pick up the tab.
And unfortunately, after we have exploded we then feel guilty or embarrassed and decide once again that we simply
should not get angry. This pushes us back into the passive-aggressive cycle in which we once again ignore our anger
until the next explosion. We want desperately to avoid our anger, but we find that it inevitably builds up and ambushes
Consider the number of times we let things slide and choose to say nothing even though we feel somewhat insulted. A
student was telling me that she had listened to so many caricatures of Christianity in one of her classes, heard so many
negative comments about "religious nuts" and "intolerant people" of faith that she let it all build up and one day blurted
out that another student was "just a narrow-minded, idiotic atheist who didn't know anything." We both talked about how
this comment was unfortunate, but we also saw how it had built up because of her lack of assertiveness. On many
occasions, she could have questioned the evidence of the other student's belief or simply reported that her own
experience had been different. She could have recognized that while there is a lot of distortion of healthy faith, this
distortion doesn't tell the whole story. She may have even suggested that religion doesn't have a monopoly on
intolerance. But she felt shy and wanted to be "nice." Yet the niceness caught up with her. The other student then
smugly used this as an example of how religious people really are hostile. This other student was completely unaware
of how her own hostile attitude helped provoke the reaction.
If we are going to become less reactionary and tell the truth in love, then we need to improve our ability to recognize
and express our anger. Explosive anger and reactionary tendencies go hand in hand. But we need to be patient with
our patterns of anger as we realize that they were not developed overnight. They cannot be instantly changed; instead,
it takes some work. We need to examine what we saw modeled in our family of origin, because we may still be imitating
those patterns or going to the opposite extreme and doing the complete reverse of what we saw modeled. Either way,
we may be controlled by tendencies we are not really choosing freely. We need to sort out our parents' conflict issues
from our own. This may even involve metaphorically giving back to our parent their unresolved anger issues, which
belong to them and not to us. Some of us may realize, for instance, that we have been carrying for years our parents'
unacknowledged and therefore unprocessed anger issues.
Also, shaming or judging our feelings of anger will not help us deal with them. We need to fully digest the realization
that anger is natural, inevitable and, in itself, neutral. People who have no ability to get angry are missing a vital
ingredient of being human. If we recognize this inevitability of anger, we may then be able to detect anger at an early
stage and do something constructive with it. We must not let it snowball or else reactivity will surely follow.
Our reactivity will also be minimized when we can own our anger as our feeling instead of blaming others for having
made us mad. Others' behavior may be intricately involved in our anger, but it is still our anger and we can choose
what to do with it. We can better understand what triggers our anger (what types of personalities, situations, behaviors
and attitudes set us off?), what patterns have not worked for us in sorting through our anger and what alternative
strategies there are for dealing with anger. It is also helpful to talk about these personal struggles with trusted friends.
Being aware of them, and regularly reminding ourselves that we are responsible for how we respond, may help us
become less reactionary.
you are responsible. But it is I who choose, consciously or unconsciously, to take the anger bait; for that I am
responsible. And if I continue to take the bait as often as you offer it, I am either refusing to learn from my
experience or I am getting some reward from my bait snatching.
situation. Are we interpreting an event or behavior in all-or-nothing, inflated or exaggerated ways? If so, what might this
be telling us about our own fear and insecurities? This mental habit of "checking ourselves," without denying our
feelings, is crucial. The greater awareness we have, the more options we have available. Reactivity does not see any
options available; instead, it feels that it simply must attack. This time of deliberate pausing may help us understand
when we need a time-out from a situation that is too intense. All of us have a point at which we can no longer be
constructive in our expression of anger. Postponing a confrontation does not necessarily involve denying anger.
If we are approaching people about an issue, we need to drop the word confrontation. If we begin a conversation with
someone by saying, "I need to confront you about something," the other person's guard will immediately go up and he
or she may already feel attacked. The word puts most people on the defensive. So, it is more helpful to say that we'd
like to mention a few things, suggest a few things, or share some of your thoughts and feelings. David Augsburger has
created the very helpful word "care-frontation" to get at the heart of what this kind of honesty entails.
can turn into painful or disastrous ends, buy it doesn't need to. Conflict is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong.
Conflict simply is. How we view, approach and work through our differences does - to a large extent - determine
our whole life pattern.
violence. It will also work hard to avoid generalizations. "You're always late," or "You're just lazy, stupid, irresponsible
or immoral." Never, always, totally, completely and absolutely are not words that lead to interpersonal peace. Also, it's
important to avoid trying to read someone else's mind. This can lead to enormous reactivity. Further, the other person
may not even be thinking what we assume they are
The discomfort we may first feel when we become assertive is worth it. Assertiveness promotes care for others; it does
not cancel out that care. It is the anger-denying passivity, which eventually explodes, that is the real threat to caring for
others. Far more damage to relationships is done by accumulated aggression than by honesty. Resentments are
monstrous destroyers of interpersonal peace. They recycle old feelings, issues and experiences without voicing them.
They eliminate being in the present and chain us to the past. They cultivate an inner picture of an enemy by whom we
feel victimized until we explode. Resentments often tag along with superficial politeness. They keep us stuck in what
someone else has done to us, rather than help us move toward our own choices and fulfillment.
We also frequently overreact to the behavior of others because we feel responsible for them. Overextending our sense
of responsibility is a major source of frustration and anxiety. It propels us into the false belief that we ought to be able to
control another. This reverses the serenity prayer and attempts to change things we cannot control while ignoring
things we can change. And sometimes our reactivity toward others stems from the simple fact that we are not minding
our own business, but instead are involved in running someone else's life.
Again, the choice is never between getting angry or not getting angry. The choice revolves around what to do with our
anger when it arises. A great deal of reactivity results from repressed anger for which we feel ashamed. Having
accumulated, it then explodes on a path of reactivity. We must become adept at recognizing and accepting our anger
at early, manageable stages.
Becoming less judgmentally reactionary and more responsive is an ongoing, daily task in which we never "arrive." Yet
as we continue to receive the grace of God and allow that grace to transform our relationships, we are freed to listen,
care and respond more fully. As David Augsberger writes:
experience of empathy must precede evaluation. A basis of trust must be laid before one risks advising. A floor
of affirmation must undergird any assertiveness. A gift of understanding opens the way to disagreeing. A gift of
understanding opens the way to disagreeing. An awareness of love sets us free to level with each other.
Building solidarity in relationships with others - through caring, support, empathy, trust, affirmation, understanding
and love - provides a foundation for the more powerful actions of confrontation, criticism, evaluation,
assertiveness, disagreement and open leveling with each other.
MAKING JUDGMENTS WITHOUT BEING JUDGMENTAL, by Terry D. Cooper, Copyright 2006, InterVarsity Press.
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