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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.

“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 gets a bad rap. It always gets blamed for those explosive outbursts you hear about in the news, road rage, post office shootings, and domestic disturbances. I wouldn’t want to be blamed for all those things. Would you? Does anger really deserve such a bad reputation? Could it be possible that anger is actually a good thing but it just gets used in the wrong way? Could it be something healthy and productive if used or channeled in helpful ways? Many people let anger get the best of them; replacing their rational thinking and leading them to do irrational things that are often violent.

Anger is held responsible for so many bad things in our society that most people now think anger is completely wrong, not allowed, and a problem if you feel any of it. Anger Management 818 provides anger management classes that help people learn about how anger operates in their lives and we help people find ways to use it more productively. As an anger management facilitator, I had one man say that he had learned helpful tools in my class but he still was getting angry and wasn’t happy about it. I had to remind him that we all get angry and it will be that way for the rest of our lives. Anger is part of our basic emotional operating system, like our computers, meaning it is a core emotion, along with fear and love. These emotions are primal to us as humans, informing us about how to live our lives and how to survive. Anger can’t be surgically removed but it can be managed and channeled in ways that benefit us and don’t cause harm to others.

In an effort to reframe the bad reputation that anger has gained, let’s understand why anger is one of our core emotions. Anger is energy. It is also a signal that tells us much about who we are and what is important to us. When we get angry, there is a biological response. Our bodies prepare for fight or flight, with perhaps a raised heartbeat, clenched fists, and tightness in the chest, all gearing up to protect ourselves and continue surviving. This worked really well when we as humans were living in caves, surviving hand to mouth, and dealing with wild animals potentially attacking us. Now in our ever so domesticated society, we still have caveman aspects to our brains but don’t have those life threatening scenarios on a daily basis. When our bodies respond so strongly, it’s easy to let that build-up of energy (anger) come rushing out of us, by punching someone or verbally slaughtering another, only to have law enforcement get involved and potentially go to jail, get written up at work, and get court ordered to attend anger management classes. 

So, before anger gets the best of you, let’s look at ways to better handle it. Anger is best managed by being proactive. This is a very, very important concept in anger management. Being proactive includes having a higher self-awareness that puts you in touch with your own feelings and emotions on a minute by minute basis. Part of this includes beginning to recognize all the emotions that lie underneath your immediate anger response. Anger is a secondary reaction to primary emotions such as fear, sadness, and frustration.

Additionally, being proactive includes using four basic concepts– knowing how your anger works and your anger triggers, using assertive communication, exercising genuine empathy for others, and managing stress in your life. Noticing the small beginnings of internal anger allows you to diffuse it sooner, instead of letting it build up and eventually explode. It is much harder to manage and dissipate explosive anger than addressing the initial feelings of it early on.

It also helps to identify and recognize how anger has operated in your life, how it has affected yourself and others, and what building blocks are included in leading up to your own anger responses.

Looking at how you communicate with others helps in identifying how changes can be made. Four basic communication styles are commonly used – passive, aggressive, passive/aggressive, and assertive. Recognizing which you use most often can help you begin moving from unproductive ways of communicating to more productive, open, and healthy styles of communication. This is best accomplished by using assertive communication which includes clearly stating your needs, being respectful of the other person’s opinion, and using ‘I’ statements. Speaking from the position of ‘I’ keeps the perspective coming from your own experience instead of starting sentences with ‘you’, which can feel attacking to the other person and lead to defensiveness. Using assertive communication will lead to clearer expression, new solutions, and helpful compromises.

Empathy is another important part of anger management. Using empathy starts with recognizing that most of the time, none of us really know what’s going on with the other person and the dangers of assuming we know how, what or why someone has done or said something. By identifying how each of us would like to be treated in many scenarios, a different approach to understanding others emerges, leading to less reactionary responses. One approach to using more empathy includes taking a 5 to 10 second pause before reacting and responding to someone. This pause allows you to imagine what it might be like to be in the other person’s shoes and respond with that perspective in mind.

Lastly, recognizing how stress builds up in your life and how it affects your own feelings and behaviors helps in managing many of your reactive responses. Some of the ways for one person to manage stress might not be the best way for another person, so it’s ideal that you find specific approaches that work for you. When one of my clients was getting upset and could feel some aggression coming up, he got down on the floor and did as many push-ups as he could, until he was exhausted. Afterwards, his body felt different, less explosive, and his head was clearer, making it easier to focus on the situation at hand. He told his wife he would be doing this from time to time and she learned to support him doing it, even in the middle of an argument. By do so, their communication was more successful and both of them were less aggressive.

These are some of the basic ideas behind anger management. They are the building blocks to healthier ways to live with anger, rather than letting reactionary emotions get out of hand. Using these approaches can be very helpful and healing. By implementing these tools, we are finding people in the world who are more self-aware and less likely to have those angry explosions that we hear about in the news, on the road, and in the post office.     

Molly Lyda, MA, MFT Intern, is an Anger Management Facilitator with Anger Management 818. For more information on anger management, go to