Choosing My Reaction (As Best I Can)

So often it’s the reaction to something, and not the thing itself, that is the problem.

Mosquito bites, food and pollen allergies, words people say — it’s not the thing out there in the world that’s causing stress or discomfort, it’s the internal reaction to it.

When my husband at the time (his name was Chris) and I first arrived in Comitancillo, Guatemala, where we were doing our Peace Corps tour of service, we stayed with a Peace Corps volunteer who was already there while we were looking for a place to rent. After the first night of sleep, Chris woke up and had hundreds — hundreds! — of little red marks where fleas had bitten him. I had none. At first I thought his blood was so much tastier than mine, they were biting him and not me, even though we were sleeping in the same flea-infested bed. Then I felt them crawling all over me and I figured it was almost impossible they weren’t biting me. It seemed much more likely that my immune system wasn’t reacting to the bites in the same way Chris’s immune system was.

I decided to do an experiment with mosquitoes based in part on this experience. I told my body not to react to any mosquito bites I might get. I told it we could easily afford the blood we were losing to the mosquitoes, so it wasn’t a big deal. I made a picture in my mind of mosquitoes as tiny angels risking death in order to administer precision acupuncture with their bites and sound healing with their buzzing. It works — I have watched mosquitoes feed on me and then checked and seen that my body never developed an irritating itchy bump where the mosquito bit. Usually when I go to a new region, I develop the bumps at first, then I remind my body that that’s not a necessary response, and my body adapts and stops reacting to the bites. It makes my life a lot more pleasant not to be annoyed by mosquitoes. As long as I’m not living somewhere with serious mosquito-borne illnesses, there’s no downside for me of being bitten.

Not reacting to mosquito bites is child’s play compared to not reacting to people. Well, some people. I actually am pretty good overall at responding to people rather than reacting to them. Every once in awhile, though, somebody will say or do something that really gets under my skin. In those cases, the best I can do is the equivalent of not scratching the itchy bump the mosquito bite makes, rather than not getting the itchy bump in the first place. Sometimes, meeting a new person is like going to a region with a different variety of mosquito — after a period of time, I can stop the itchy bump from happening in the first place. Other times, I can’t make the itchy bump go away. In those cases, if I can’t control my reaction, I just do my best to have the best possible response to my reaction.

As with the mosquitoes, if I can think of a positive story surrounding the person or situation, it seems to help. If I tell myself the story that someone is a jerk, my reaction is usually different than if I tell myself someone is acting out of immaturity or ignorance. I may need to protect myself with external boundaries in both cases, because the person isn’t capable of honoring internal boundaries; when I see the person with compassion, though, I usually have a more positive experience than when I see them with anger. A common comparison I make in my mind is that some people are like babies who haven’t learned yet not to bite or to pull hair — they’re still lovable, they just need to grow up a little more, and until then, some defensive actions to protect myself from harm may be required.

When I can’t control my reactions, it can be frustrating. I imagine it’s annoying for people with allergies to know that if their body just wouldn’t react to the allergen, they wouldn’t be so miserable. Similarly, with emotional allergies I can get very impatient with myself — why can I convince my body not to react to a mosquito bite, yet I can’t convince it not to react to a person? Maybe I can, and I just haven’t yet. Until then, I suppose I’m stuck with the choices people with allergies have — avoid the allergen, or deal with the body’s reaction if the allergen can’t be avoided.

Knowing that my reaction to something is the problem, rather than the thing itself, doesn’t always help me to change my reaction; I do believe it helps my mental and emotional equanimity to keep it in mind, though. Even if I’m frustrated that I can’t change my reaction, at least I’m not demonizing the things “out there” that are causing it, and I’m keeping my focus on what I have the best chance of changing: myself.

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