Everything is a reaction to something else. Everything’s a setup for something.
Athletes and their coaches study films to spot patterns and nuances in a team and individual player’s game- from which they can learn, tweak and improve. Slowing an interaction down to be able to see the exact sequence of moves, angles, actions and reactions in a play allows them to make the critical adjustments necessary in their for the difference of a win next time. What if we all did this in our normal lives and patterns?
Action & reaction can be simultaneous. It doesn’t much matter which we call the action or which we call the reaction; both create an interaction, and neither exists without the other.
This is true, and our lives are filled with interactions all day long. They’re so smooth that we rarely question what was an action and what was a reaction. That’s actually a good thing, and keeps us in relationship and moving forward… Most of the time.
While looking at the overall interaction of things is a healthy way to go, sometimes we should look a little closer.
We know that Sir Isaac Newton was right. But not just in physical science… if we break it down, we can see that for every action, there really is a reaction that occurs from it in human dynamics as well. This is helpful in understanding our own patterns.
When certain triggers (actions) occur, we react. Similar or repeated triggers make for reinforced reactions. Some of those are awesome and healthy, and some aren’t. Every single time we repeat an action or reaction, we’re rewiring our brain for those behaviors- strengthening and myelinating those neural pathways of response, which ultimately become the way we run whether we intended it or not. It’s like your pattern of typing mistakes on your smartphone- the software learns your patterns and then compensates for them (supposedly, although my phone just doesn’t get that I mean of instead of if), so you don’t even notice them anymore (mimicking the brain). In our own human reactions to other people and situations these patterns and compensations are created too, and before we know it, we’ve got some new default settings we didn’t even plan for and may not even notice… Habits. And sometimes they’re unhealthy, unproductive habits. Let’s fix that…
The more self-work you do, the more you start to see your own patterns. A client once described this self-awareness that develops “like having a rear-view mirror on yourself all the time”- noticing things about how you operate which you just wouldn’t see otherwise.
It’s one thing to notice behavior patterns. It’s quite another to choose to interrupt or change them. This is an important step on the road to growth, to be sure.
Example: “I spend a whole lot of time on Facebook during the day which isn’t productive, so I’m going to limit my time on Facebook to 10 minutes at night and that’s it.”
Okay, good. Behavior changed- much better than whiling away hours of productivity on auto-pilot.
That tactical approach may or may not really help to get at the real issue- what this Facebook habit is actually a reaction to. If we skip over this, then just limiting the Facebook time isn’t going to solve much or get at the root trigger- in fact it might just spawn another reaction pattern/habit to replace it instead (like eating, let’s say), which I’ll just have to deal with 10 pounds later when that becomes a problem, too.
Look at the initial action or trigger that your behavior is reacting to:
“Whenever I get news I don’t like or have to deal with situation XX or person YY, I tend to get on Facebook, which is actually sucking up a lot of time and killing my productivity.”
Now we’re looking at what really needs attention, which wasn’t really the Facebook habit at all, but what it was a reaction to. That surf time was successfully diverting my attention from something I didn’t want to face, and compensating with something that felt a lot better in the moment to focus in on (the brain loves instant gratification). Once I realize this, I see that limiting my Facebook time isn’t actually going to help me to more easily deal with bad news or my XY situation…and then I can separate the trigger and the reaction apart. From there I can make a smarter, more effective adjustment which will have more lasting impact.
So maybe what we need is a giant pause button, to be able to freeze our own action like in the game films, so we can rewind and take a look at what we’re doing and what we’re reacting to over and over into habits without realizing it.
It’s about going a bit deeper. Here’s how you can do this…
To get past the most obvious behavior you think you need to change and see the bigger pattern of action-reaction-pattern, you have to ask yourself a few key questions (we’ll stick with the FB example) like
1. Why? What? When? Who? How often?…
Why am I doing this?
“Because I like to see what other people are doing and share out with my ‘friends’ on Facebook.” Maybe. Plus…
Deeper layer: “It feels better to focus on someone else’s life/thoughts instead of my own or put some finite positive thoughts out there rather than deal with these other ones.”
When do I tend to do it?
Whenever I get news I don’t like or have to deal with a negative person like XX.
Certain situations trigger these reactive patterns which divert our attention from something we’d rather not feel or deal or think about. The more persistent a situation is, the more you may not even notice your reactive response, now fully engrained as a habit.
It could be certain times of day as triggers associated with certain tasks (like when you have a deadline to hit which you’re avoiding) or events (like the night before a business trip, every time).
It also could be certain conditions (like when you get less than X hours of sleep)…
Particular people are absolutely triggers for you. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. If bad, then your reactive pattern could be so habitual that you could actually miss this person showing up in a positive way (because you’re expecting the worse), and miss an opportunity with them.
What am I getting out of it?
I get to focus on something more positive. Sure, but…
Deeper: I get some acknowledgment and validation (at least from my Facebook world). I get to be heard.
We’re always getting something out of what we’re doing, or we wouldn’t be doing it. Categorically it’s as simple as avoiding pain or seeking pleasure, although…
Pain = difficulty, fear, or discomfort of any kind. Pleasure = validation, attention, confidence, inclusion, acknowledgment, control, power… but could also be learning, accomplishing, creating…
Um… a lot, every day.
Reactions repeated become habits.
Habits with an edge of need to them (depending on how strong you’re reacting from something) can become crutches.
Crutches with a strong “feels so much better” response can become addictions.
Addictions, no matter how innocently they started are really hard to break, and can become much bigger than the initial trigger you were trying to avoid in the first place.
2. Handle the intial trigger.
Once you find the trigger, address it by itself instead of allowing yourself to react in a way that may or may not help you in the long run.
I have a hard time hearing negative feedback and persistently negative people. So- I’m going to try some new strategies for being able to hear negative feedback in a constructive way and interact with negative people in a way that I don’t absorb it. I’ll talk with XX about our communication to see if we can change the negative pattern there.
You are a creature of reaction. You can also change your own patterns to be more intentional, so you’re not a creature of reactive unhealthy habits. So strategize outside the moment of trigger, since that’s when your thinking is most compromised.
3. Study and tweak your own game.
Pay attention to your patterns.
Pause yourself, rewind and break it down.
Notice what’s happening first in your interactions, and how you can tweak/address the reaction pattern itself rather than waiting until it becomes a set, myelinated and reinforced habit down the road (and doesn’t solve the issue anyhow).
Did I mention addressing those triggers and interrupt your pattern as early as possible? Yeah- it’s that important.
4. Set yourself up.
You actually can be less reactive and more pro-active, to respond the way you know will be best for you. You now know how to change your own State. You even know how to trigger and anchor the best and most productive States. So… for this, as you choose a new response (in a sane moment), try it, anchor it, then hold yourself to it when the trigger hits next. Debrief after, and be honest about whether the new response is working or not. If not, try another. Or another. Or go back to #1, and re-address what’s going on. It’s worth it.
Everything is a reaction to something else. And everything’s a setup for something…
So set yourself up for intentional, healthy patterns, which will trigger even more of them.