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Reacting Vs Responding:
When it comes to the context of human interactions, communication and relationships, reacting and responding are mistakenly used as synonyms – when really they are different.

Think about it, when your boss sends you an email that rubs you the wrong way, or when you receive a text that offends you, you are inclined to respond immediately and “give them a piece of your mind.”
This is reacting. It is “emotionally charged” as described by Anita Avedian in her anger management essentials workbook. Giving the sender a piece of your mind can be interpreted as an attack – right? There could be insults, and words exchanged that we later regret. After some research here are some brief characteristics of reactions:

They are defensive| Emotionally driven | They are sporadic or instant – Meaning long term effects aren’t taken into consideration | According to psychology today, they are “driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the unconscious mind.” | They are forms of defense mechanisms| They are normally passive which tend to digress the relationship in question and last but not least | There is lack of a mindfulness element.

However, if we take the same incident and respond to it rather than react to it, then there is a difference. There is time taken to reduce the emotional charge, it’s well thought out and not as harsh as a reaction. Here are some characteristics of responses:

They are thoughtful and contain reasoning |They are logic driven | They are active and tend to progress a relationship because the long term effects are taken into consideration | Takes time | Takes both conscious and unconscious mind to formulate a response.

Big Idea:
The goal is to respond and not to react.

Now that we have understood what the difference between reacting and responding is, it is advisable to do the latter. It is a healthy way to be mindful, improve relationships, reduce self-sabotage and to be self-aware in different situations. Some wonderful examples provided in Anita Avedian’s Anger management essentials workbook are;

1. Wait. Take some time to cool down before responding. Take a walk, sleep on it, do breathing exercises, walk away – to give you an opportunity to clear your mind.
2. As you wait, journal through your emotions and thoughts. You can draft a response immediately and after some time has elapsed and you have calmed down, go back and go through the draft. Use this as an opportunity to identify the differences in the reaction vs. res.
3. Call a trusted person, vent and brainstorm the appropriate way to respond.


“The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That’s the day we truly grow up.” —John C. Maxwell

It is very easy to blame others for things that happen in our lives that we don’t like. Children are masters at blaming others. If you were to ask two fighting children who started the argument, they both would inevitably point their fingers at each other without hesitation. Why do children do that? The answer is simple, really: it’s so much easier to blame others than to take responsibility for our own side of the situation.

Some people may wonder why we should even bother to take responsibility for ourselves. Well, the truth is that when we take responsibility for ourselves, we are actually empowering ourselves. When we take responsibility, we are no longer giving our power away to anyone or anything.

The next question then, is—-how do we do take responsibility for ourselves? We do this by being aware of how our own thoughts, feelings, and issues impact the people around us. Once we have this awareness, we can choose certain behaviors that either enhance or hurt ourselves and others. Remember: we always have the power to choose how we think and behave, so we might as well choose those things that create more joy and love in our lives.

Call to Action!

This week, notice the times when you find yourself blaming others. Simply observe your behavior with neutrality and without judgment. How does it feel? Do you feel more or less empowered? Next, see if you can think of an alternative way to think or behave in the same situation, one that brings you a greater sense of inner power. Then go and do it!

Sometimes, when working with clients who are dealing with co-dependency, low self-esteem, or anger management issues, I have used an illustration that seems to be an effective part of their treatment. I ask the client if they know what schizophrenia is, and if they have ever seen a person suffering from this illness. If the answer is no, I explain a bit about the disorder, but most of the time people have encountered this somewhere along the line. Then I say to the client, “If you saw someone like this on the street, talking to a lamp, rather disheveled, and clearly not in their right mind, and this person came up to you and said, ‘You are a three foot tall green space alien from Mars’, would you all the sudden become extremely alarmed, agitated or concerned that you were in fact a three foot tall green space alien from Mars? Maybe this was the case all along and you just did not realize it?” At this point there is usually a smile that crosses the client’s face, and their answer is “obviously no”. I reply by commenting that this is a rather extreme example, but the main point is to examine the source.

If a person is insulted and they react with anger, depression, anxiety, or some other unhealthy response, they are giving the power to the other person. Whether it is an adolescent who is being picked on at school, a husband being verbally assaulted by his wife, or a gang member being “dissed” by a rival gang member, the point is the same. Just because someone says something, does NOT mean it is true. Why then act as though it IS?

Written By: Michael Hecht, MFT

A few hints which may make it easier for someone to manage their anger because it is often not about anger so much as simply being assertive in one’s relationships. I recently had a client who complained that she had difficulty controlling herself from getting into altercations or heated arguments with people. I discovered that she constantly gave the following messages to herself:
“You don’t stick up for yourself”;
“You don’t say what you mean”;
“You get angry at yourself for allowing so-and-so to do such-and-such”;
“You look for excuses when you explain your reasoning to people”;
“You explain too much to people—more than you have to”;

The person suffers from low self-esteem and uses the above techniques to avoid confrontation. She found, however, that frequently the other person took advantage of her and used her as a “doormat”, which made her angry at the other person, but also at herself. Her solution was to get aggressive and argue and even get physical with the other person to show him/her that she was “tough.” She found, again, that this just opened the door to more controversy and she ended up at our Anger Management 818.

A few cues were helpful to her. They were designed to forestall her being taken advantage of. She first had to admit that the only person she could “fix” was herself—no-one else. Then she realized that she had to look out for herself because no-one else was going to do it. The other person was only out for his/her own advantage. “It’s my space (time) and I have to own it.” This also meant to her that she had to lay down the ground rules of her relationships with people clearly and unequivocally before the other person had an opening to take advantage, for example, putting a return date on something someone borrowed, or not allowing a neighbor to borrow her car anymore because of the consequences should the person be doing something illegal in it.

This led to her developing strategies for “asking for what I want.” She had to deal with others in a non-aggressive way. Inferring the feelings of others she was being assertive with became out of bounds for her. She had to learn to concern herself with her own feelings and desires first. The strategy she used when she felt bad as a result of what someone did or said was that she told them, “When you do (say) such-and-such, I feel (sad, angry, frustrated, frightened, put down, etc). I wish you would consider how I feel and stop that. Will you please help me and do that?”

The upshot was that this person felt encouraged to tell the people who she felt had wronged or taken advantage of her how she felt and what she wanted without reservation, so that they could see that she now cared about herself and so that she would no longer put herself in the position to get angry at herself and/or others due to neglecting her own boundaries.

“There is no reality—only perception.” Jay McGraw in Life Strategies for Teens

“You don’t react to what happens to you (in this instance, someone saying “hi”), but you react to your interpretation of what happens to you (in this instance, how you interpret what that “hi” means). How you see and interpret certain events is purely a matter of choice. All that there is…is perception.” (p.142)

Let’s see how these things work out in social situations: Family, Peers, (and later, School, and Work). The family is the real “factory” for the product (you) that is turned out into the world. So the ways of dealing with each other in family situations are usually carried forward into life for a person’s entire time on earth. In the beginning, if a baby cries, the caregiver—usually the mother—has to guess what the problem is and solve it so the baby can be comfortable, happy, etc. This has to do with real-life situations—cold, wet, gas, hungry, tired, dirty, itchy, burning sensations of rashes, etc. The solution is executed and the baby returns to peaceful repose.

But as the child gets older and learns words that correspond to the feeling and sensations that he/she has, it gets trickier. The caregivers hear the words and see the child’s actions and sometimes the words and actions do not mesh. This is particularly evident in families where expressing oneself, complaining, etc is discouraged. Sometimes even telling the truth is dangerous due to punishments that are meted out—not for telling the truth, but for telling the truth about something the child did which the parent did not like. So the child starts to hedge, choosing not to talk about what he/she is doing or choosing to make up a version which the parents will approve of.

This further carries over to the child’s dealings with people beyond the family. The child modifies his/her descriptions of personal feelings and desires to suit what will make him/her feel safe. If the child’s self-esteem has been injured in the family situation, he/she might make up stories which exaggerate his/her exploits, or perhaps he/she will start blaming others for personal failings so as to escape the feelings of shame which he felt in the family situation. He/she might start bullying others to feel better about him/herself. Or he/she might become a target of bullies.

The caregiver will not have nearly as much control over the outcomes of problems which become evident in the child’s life and will only be able to guess what they really are. Many times the caregiver/parent is overwhelmed and cannot, due to time allotment, or mood or anxiety concerns, listen to the child or certainly cannot actually help the child with the problem. In this case, in which the child does not get a healthy adult viewpoint about his/her perceived problem, the child starts projecting his/her problem onto others, attributing his/her own motivations to others for similar actions or behaviors as he/she would take in certain circumstances.

At this point, the child’s “perception” is skewed by his/her own history of solving or not solving problems and unless he/she asks others why they took certain actions, he/she will never know their true motivations because he/she will assume that they did them for the same reason as he/she would have. This is analogous to the child not learning empathy or how to feel the pain or pleasure of another individual by reading cues on the person’s face or in their behavior. He/she often is unable to anticipate the effect that his/her own words or actions will have on the other person. This child is stuck in his/her own body and is not able to read motivations or emotions in other people.

The problem with this is that many misunderstandings develop because of the disconnect between people. If I have not had the experience or practice trying to understand motivations or emotions of others, I will often be offended by what another person says or does, construing it in the way that I have learned in the many times my caregiver or similar person of importance to me may have meant it in a punitive way, which may not be what the other intended at all.

This results in a feeling of disrespect, fear, anxiety, shame, or any number of other feelings which develop from not understanding the meaning of the other’s words or actions. In most people, the outward expression of such negative emotions, is simply to take offense and get angry. There are very few who will actually inquire as to what the speaker actually meant by what he/she said, or the person who, say, seemed to stare at our hero, actually had (or says that he had) in his head (not thinking at all about him/her, spaced out, looking at something else, remembering something he/she forgot to do, etc).

Jay McGraw’s point was that we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to interpret what others have said or done, but we do it according to what we ourselves—a different person—have learned and experienced in our lifetime—many times in a negative way in which we had to defend ourselves. Without feedback from the other person, it is nearly impossible to arrive at the right motivation or intent for what another person says or does. Of course, even then, the other person may be lying or simply unaware of his/her true intent. So our perceptual reality is very squishy, isn’t it?

So this is one of the primary tasks of living in the social world—communicating with others using words and behaviors—and being understood by them, and, of course, vice versa as well—trying to interpret the words and actions of others. This is possibly the most difficult skill that must be learned in order to live a healthy life. What role does anger play in all that? The feeling of anger is the signal that says that there has been a disconnect in the chain of communication that needs to be corrected before the personal relationship can be repaired between the speaker/behaver and the perceiver/victim.

This is not something that is easy to learn and usually takes a “course” in life skills, anger management, social interactions or some aspect of communication skills in order to assimilate the skill so that it is usable. In other words, this skill, if you did not learn it at home as a child, must be learned from someone else later on either in “therapy” or in a more-or-less formal class environment, in order to “catch up.”

Anger Management 818 participated in the North Hollywood Taco Cook Off on Saturday September 24, 2011. Our team had a booth at the event and handed out tips and information sheets on ways to handle anger. The information was received well by the community and our team enjoyed being at the event.

The Sherman Oaks Street Fair was Sunday October 16, 2011 and Anger Management 818 had a booth at the event. We handed out promotional items and information on healthy ways to handle anger. We also had games for parents and children to play. This event attracted over 80,000 people from the San Fernando Valley and surrounding areas. It was a great way for visitors to spend their Sunday supporting local businesses, checking out the vendors, and enjoying the street fair food.

Anger Management 818 is proud to announce its participation in the Sherman Oaks Farmer’s Market. Our team had a booth at the market in June and September and plans to be there again on Saturday December 17. The Sherman Oaks Farmer’s Market is every Saturday from 8am-1pm at the 101 Freeway and Sepulveda.

Sometimes it is hard to remember all the tips and remedies for defusing anger. When you experience a situation with someone that results in feeling upset, the following three principles are basic to dispelling and/or preventing anger from arising.

1. Think: This situation is not meant personally against me. This person is having a bad day. I have had bad days and know that I do not always put my best foot forward under those circumstances. I must find out more so I will ask the person disarming questions (if possible) about how his/her day is going. I call this the “Not -Personal Principle.”

2. The Golden Rule applies: Am I treating this person as I would like him/her to treat me? (Irrespective of how I think they are treating me). I call this the “Respect Principle.”

3. Ask yourself: Do I need to fight this battle now? At all? If not, I should take a break and tell this person that I will get back to him/her later (specific time) when I am able to think more rationally and I respectfully hope that he/she will do the same. I call this the “Another Time Principle.”

In the meantime one can review other ways of problem-solving or dispute resolution which may eliminate the problem altogether in the long-run.

Author: Michael L. Hecht, MA, MFT
October 4, 2011

Some feelings tend to be disturbing, uncomfortable, torturous, and downright painful. So painful that we often cover these feelings up with depression, or anger, or anything else that will help to cover up or ignore what we’re truly feeling. We might even stop to wonder why we even have these feelings in the first place – why would our minds make us feel so bad?

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