You Have More Control Over How You Respond Than You Think

Angry mother and daughter sulking“What is wrong with you? This is not how I raised you! I raised you to use your brain!”

So went a mom’s reaction when her daughter came to her for help after hurting herself in an effort to feel relief from grief symptoms she was experiencing. As might be the urge of a scared parent in the situation, the mother reacted in anger, screaming and personalizing her daughter’s actions. In this situation, of course the pressing concern is the daughter’s health and safety, and a positive was that the teen had reached out to her mother—though the child later said, “I’ll remember not to do that next time.”

The mother explained that this was her “personality”; she did not “hold anything back,” allowing people to know “exactly how she feels, even if it’s harsh—that’s how I got where I am.” This action did not prove helpful, as the vulnerable child was not in a position to hear a harsh critique and it apparently made the child hesitate about telling her mother the next time she felt unsafe. In this situation, the mother mistook her own common reactionary style (explosive anger) as an unchangeable part of her personality. The truth is, we are able to change the way we respond to others and to ourselves. It isn’t as “fixed” as it can feel.

Feeling doomed to one style of interaction isn’t uncommon. From the child who thinks talking back to her parents is “who she is,” to the significant other who believes it’s OK to berate her boyfriend because “I’m just whiny, that’s how I’ve always been,” to the man who believes “I fall in love fast, I can’t help if it’s with the wrong person,” or, “I just don’t talk about how I feel, I never have,” individuals often treat their patterns as unwavering personality types.

Why We Believe This

There are a few reasons we may feel afflicted with rather than responsible for our response and communication styles. First, it takes practice to respond differently in the moment than we have before. We typically speak to people without thinking twice, as if filtering our words is someone else’s responsibility and not our own. Second, it can be scary to explore a new way of handling a situation. We can feel particularly vulnerable if we perceive that the change compromises our value system. This is especially true when our reactions have been reinforced in some way.

The mother in the example above perceives herself as successful because of her anger, making anger seem beneficial to hold on to. It’s easy to minimize the negative effects of her anger by focusing on the positives. If the mother values “being authentic,” this might feel like an authentic reaction to her.

Cognitive dissonance is the third idea that allows us hold on to our behavior patterns. Cognitive dissonance is essentially the brain’s way of eliminating discomfort by keeping its ideas consistent. If the mom in our example had failed to change her anger responses in a romantic relationship 10 years ago, she might be motivated to maintain consistency with her anger, as changing now would require her to understand that she could have made a change 10 years ago. Cognitive dissonance allows her to say, “If I couldn’t change it then, I cannot change it now, and I shouldn’t be asked to do so.”

Continuing with the belief that we can’t control our own responses allows us to shift blame outward and focus on the traits of other people—“You should know what I meant,” or, “You should receive my message in whatever tone or verbiage I want to use to send it,” or, “You should know better than to ask how I feel.” The fallacy here is that the only changes each of us is allowed to make are the ones within ourselves; our own reactions, our own coping skills, our own communications. Demanding another person to be less sensitive or expect less of you will stifle rather than grow a relationship.

How Do We Move Forward?

  1. Incorporate awareness, validation, and accountability into each exchange. Notice when you are responding out of habit and not out of a desire to find the most helpful approach. Look for patterns, and consider what fears are allowing the patterns to continue. Think about how different responses might be helpful in different situations. Explore what makes you think certain reactions have been helpful, and what your values are in given situations. This will allow you to be true to yourself while making improvements.
  2. Practice validation (the recognition of another person’s experience). It requires the listener in a conversation to realize that it isn’t necessary to agree with the statement, just to understand where the speaker is coming from. To use the example of the mother and daughter, the mother may have expressed validation by responding in an understanding, concerned, and neutral manner to her daughter’s admittance of dangerous behavior. Certainly, this calm response may have taken much more energy in that moment than mother’s typically explosive response type, but it may have resulted in more open communication between mother and child. Additionally, it would role-model for the child how to respond to a situation with the most helpful response rather than the first response.
  3. Ask yourself, what am I willing to change? How will I do it? Then practice your responses. Ask for time in a discussion or conflict while you gather your thoughts. Life isn’t like Gilmore Girls, where every communication must be stated immediately and as quickly as possible. You can agree to revisit the topic at a specific time after you’ve been able to find the nugget of truth in the other person’s position. Make sure to explain that you’re taking space to think about the topic so that the person you’re communicating with does not fear the topic has been abandoned. In the ongoing challenge of acting and reacting, it is possible to make small changes that start with simply recognizing the things that can be changed and the benefits that can result.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lorain Moorehead, LCSW, therapist in Chandler, Arizona

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 8 comments
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  • Korin

    Korin

    August 5th, 2014 at 10:26 AM

    There are many people who do not want to take any kind of responsibility for their actions so they blame it on stuff that they say is beyond their control.

    I know that this is the easy way out, but what good does it really so anyone to shirk that responsibility? I mean, we are all adults here and have control over how we act and what we say for the most part. It can be hard to draw those lines and pull the resins in at times, but if you are going to make any sort of headway then this is what has to be done. You can’t continue to nlame external factors on how you react and overreact.

  • Rebecca

    Rebecca

    August 5th, 2014 at 11:14 AM

    Thank you for this Article. I especially like the part of “individuals often treat their patterns as unwavering personality types.” That hit the nail on the head. Many times we can’t seem to figure out the source and where to start to change. Most importantly have the patience to make the nessessary changes to have open communication. Something that I will continue to work on and practice.

  • Sam

    Sam

    August 5th, 2014 at 2:49 PM

    Okay, Korin, we all have control over our actions. But when you blame a minority for your contribution to the problems, then you take away from opportunities to learn and improve situations. What if you act out hate, verbally or non-verbally, and you are not aware of it? Then when the minority person responds in a self-protective, but not violent way, do you blame them? Many of the problems are properly located in the relationships between people. Change takes time and communication, but in the mean time LGBT suffer for things that other people do not take responsibility for.

  • josie

    josie

    August 5th, 2014 at 3:14 PM

    I have a pretty short temper, even with the children at times, and then I feel horrible right after I blow up. I want to try a different approach where I can take a moment to think about what I would feel if someone that I loved blew up at me in this way. I hope that this one little step back will allow me to react a little differently the next time that I feel annoyed or irritated.

  • terrell

    terrell

    August 6th, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    you can react any way that you want to toward yourself but just because you are having a bad day or a crappy week does not give you the right to take it out on anyone else.

  • Belinda

    Belinda

    August 7th, 2014 at 12:08 PM

    Love the Gilmore Girls reference. Just because you are thinking something does not always mean that it needs to be said, right? I think that we go through life thinking that we just want to be heard so we talk, most of the time a little too much even at times when we should probably keep our mouths closed and listen a little to what someone else has to say. I don’t want anyone to feel like what they have to say is not worthy of being heard but I think that those of you who feel the need to speak your mind all of the time have a tenedency to silence those for whom talking it through can be a little more difficult and complicated. All I am saying is to try to remember that different things are difficult for different people and it would be nice if we could all think about that for a change instead of only focusing on ourselves.

  • martin

    martin

    August 11th, 2014 at 5:01 PM

    So much of how we behave and react has a lot to do with what was modeled to us when we were children by our own parents

  • 98%

    98%

    September 29th, 2014 at 3:37 AM

    I always watch what i say to people cause it reflects right back to me…We must watch an be careful What we say to others at the end of the day we all have feelings..

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