This article was originally published by Luke Jones at Health Room.
“Reactive people are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance. Proactive people carry their own weather with them.”
We’ve all done it.
Looked through the window to see rain and grey clouds, and decided it’s a miserable day. Been criticised by someone at work or home and consequently felt down for hours afterwards. Watched our sports team win a game and felt on cloud nine for a week.
For better or worse, these are all examples of reactive behaviour, where our feelings depend on the results of external events or processes that we have no control over. They are completely outside our sphere of influence, yet they can control our lives.
Reactive people are essentially like characters in a movie, playing out the script. They often resemble powerless victims, having their lives run by external factors. They have little control over their emotions. Instead their emotions are dictated by someone or something else; by circumstance and the outside environment.
You’ll often hear phrases like: “If only they treated me a bit better, I could be happy”. “I have to do this because…”. “I wish I had more time for that, but…”.
We are all guilty of being reactive from time to time, often without even knowing. For most people it’s the default program. I know I’m guilty.
For example, I had an article published on Natural News the other day, and I also had a good workout. I felt great. Sometimes though, when I struggle with finding blog ideas or if I’m sick; I don’t feel so great. I have no real control over any of these events, they have control over me.
But whether we realise it or not, we choose to subordinate ourselves to those forces that are outside our sphere of influence. We choose to experience happiness, unhappiness, anger, frustration, boredom and elation. We choose to create the habits of wallowing in self-pity, shifting the blame, and feeling powerless.
When we are told that the situations we find ourselves in and the emotions we experience are largely from our own doing, it can be hard to accept. It involves a huge paradigm shift, with us taking responsibility for our current circumstances.
The natural reaction is often to resist and to argue otherwise, until eventually the light bulb flicks on. The eureka moment occurs — the realisation that we are in fact in control.
If we can choose to be reactive and be controlled by external factors, we can also choose not to be.
We don’t have to be influenced by unpredictable events or the negative emotions of others. As holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl stated in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
If Viktor managed to choose his response amongst the unimaginable conditions of the Nazi death camps, witnessing endless suffering and losing almost all of his family; surely we can do it in our everyday lives?
This type of behaviour is proactive. When we are proactive, we only concern ourselves with things that are inside our sphere of influence, rather than worrying about things we can’t do anything about. We look towards what we are able to control and change, and this includes the way we react to any given situation.
We can’t always directly alter how someone else behaves or talks to us. We have no control over the weather. We don’t even have a say in how our favourite team will do on the weekend. But we can choose our thought processes and our responses.
Being proactive is not a case of being a robot and having no emotions. Rather, it’s being in complete control over your emotions. It’s making the transition — from other people and circumstances being in charge, to being in charge of yourself.
Instead of shifting the blame elsewhere, you can begin to carry the responsibility. You stop thinking that the external circumstances need to change, and realise that you can instead alter yourself internally. The proactive approach is one that deals with things from the inside-out perspective.
And it applies to all sorts of situations. In relationships; where you work on your own behaviour and focus on being a loving person, rather than worrying about the faults of your partner. In business; where you work to your strengths and contribute as much as you can to the company rather than letting your belittling boss bring you down.
It even applies to healthcare. For example, the traditional medical model often treats people in quite a reactive way. When there is a problem, they try to respond to it, often by treating the patient’s symptoms… This is an outside-in approach.
On the other hand, Chiropractors tend to look at healing from an inside-out perspective. They are often proactive in their method, addressing the underlying causes of them symptoms, and altering them. They change the thing that can be changed (the cause), rather than trying to treat the symptoms (the result of the cause).
Proactivity is not exactly a new concept. Stoic philosophy promoted the idea of concerning yourself only with the things you could influence — your thoughts and your actions. Everything else is indifference; not worth worrying about. The Buddhists also believe that there are no inherently good or bad events. Only our judgements of those events make them good or bad, and we are free to choose. And that, we are.
How can we apply this thinking to our everyday lives? How can we make the shift from reactivity to proactivity? Here are a few things you can have a go at:
1. Notice your reactive behaviour. Begin with the little things, not with the death of a loved one or the suffering of innocent people. Just the everyday situations; in work perhaps, or in your relationships. Notice your reactive behaviour when it occurs, in the moment. Also note how many others do the same, and how easy it is to be reactive. Don’t judge, just watch.
2. Alter your language. Our language tells us a lot about our level of reactivity or proactivity. Reactive people tend to use “I can’t”, “If only”, “I have to”. These phrases are shifting the blame to outside circumstances, getting rid of responsibility. Consciously change these to more positive, empowering phrases. “I can”, “I will”, “I want to”. A simple change in language can make a big difference.
3. Analyse your past mistakes. Whilst you can control your actions, you cannot always control the consequences. Invariably, you will have made mistakes in your past — we all have. But we cannot change the past, so dwelling on those mistakes is a form of reactive behaviour. Instead, accept that you made them, take whatever you can learn from them, let them go, and move on.
4. Make commitments. Making goals and working towards them can help empower you and reinforce the control you have over your life. If you achieve what you set out to, you realise that you can be responsible for your circumstances, regardless of the external forces.
Becoming more proactive is essentially a practice of mindfulness. It involves you becoming more aware of everything that is going on in the moment.
During your practice, you’ll notice how easy it is to slip into reactive mode. You’ll realise how so many others live their lives on reactive autopilot.
As with everything, take your time and don’t be too hard on yourself. We've been raised in quite a reactive world, and have developed lifelong habits that will take time to change.
That’s not to say we can’t change though. Just take it slow, enjoy the self-reflective process, and savour that feeling of taking charge of your life.
Luke Jones is the creator of Health Room, a site dedicated to exploring and sharing ideas in health, lifestyle and sustainability. To find out more about living mindfully, moving naturally, and eating healthily, visit Health Room; and get closer to realising your health potential.