Power in the Pause.

By Melissa.

Reactivity. Reactivity for me is reflexive. Involuntary. Cellular-level habituations that seem to simply make me — well, me. I am a reactive person.

What does this look like in practice?

Well, in some contexts it makes me appear very capable. In the capacities I work in the event production realm, knee-jerk reactivity lends to me being decisive in environments that require quick decisions for safety first and entertainment next.

And in some [read: most] contexts, reactivity lends to me being passive aggressive and condescending. Let’s set a scene. I’m in the kitchen making dinner over a hot stovetop with our young toddler tugging at my pants leg, demanding my (and only my) attention. I work from home and come upstairs from my workday straight into cooking, while trying to get a few minutes of quality time in with my daughter, while my phone is still ringing off the hook with clients from all time zones. I didn’t get time to decompress, to transition from my work day to family life. So I’m still frazzled, still ruminating on the things I didn’t finish. Still anxiously thinking about all the things I need to do to keep our domestic ship afloat. And feeling guilty for looking forward to my daughter’s bedtime so that I can pause and breathe for the first time that day. Feeling guilty for being overwhelmed in the little time that we do get together. Feeling frustrated for feeling like I am responsible for too much. Feeling shameful for not being able to hold it all together with grace and ease.

Christophe enters the kitchen having just arrived home from being away at work all day and says, “Do you need help?” I’ve got so many different things going at once that I don’t even know how to delegate to him. I’m also aware that he just had a rough day — as he does every day — and feel like I’m going to compound his problems if I solicit his assistance.

Do I need help? Yes. But how do I quickly and decisively respond? Most likely with a curt, “No. I’ve got this.” Followed by me handling whatever needed to be handled verbally silent, but screaming negativity with my energy and actions. Slammed cabinets. Audible sighs.

Why? What happened in that split second that warranted me responding to an offer for help like that? Especially when I actually needed help in that moment? How easy would it be to simply say, “YES! I’M SO GLAD YOU’RE HOME! I’m sure you’ve got limited bandwidth after the day you just had as well, and I greatly appreciate you doing x, y, z. We are both super overwhelmed. Let’s tackle this together.”

Turns out, saying that isn’t easy at all. Not for someone like me. Not for someone who punishes herself as a martyr so that the other person can see just how much she does alone. I mean, a massive host of deep-seeded triggers can flash across my mind in a split second, resulting in ever-growing, relationship-demaging resentment:

Why do I have to manage you? I already have everything else on my plate, now I have to delegate to you too? Survey the scene and just DO something. Why ask me a “yes” or “no” question, forcing me to say, “Yes, I need help,” rather than coming in and saying, “I am here to help, what can I do?” Because the former makes me feel weak and incapable and confirms core misbeliefs I have about myself, while the latter takes that mental burden away from me and allows me to get your help without facing my vulnerabilities. Do you secretly hope I will say “no,” so that you can go decompress from your long day, while I don’t get to do so until late into the evening after our child has gone to bed? Have I trained you to ask me that way so that I can control every conversation and every outcome? Why am I always the one who has to be in control? Why do I simultaneously wish to control everything and wish I could trust someone else to take control? Did I seriously just mental leap from you offering help to me declaring I don’t trust you in a split second? I’m right about myself, I fucking suck. Of course you wouldn’t care about me or about helping me. And now we all get to suffer together. [Cue one more cabinet slam.]

Somewhere along the way, I’ve told myself that having a quick retort to everything and to everyone serves to convince myself and others that I am knowledgable and trustworthy and valued and in-fucking-control, and isn’t that what we all hope to feel? But why? Why do I hope to feel that?

I feel ready to answer that it’s because I’ve been subconsciously lying to the very core of myself. Telling myself that I am not worthy of value, that who I am as a person is not knowledgeable or trustworthy, and if you know just how lacking as a person I am, you’d never love or accept me. So I overcompensate to drown out that lie.

And that just isn’t working. I can still hear it. In every conversation. In every snarky email. In every traffic jam. In every innocuous text message. And it makes me feel bad. And it in turns makes me make others feel bad.

So, it’s time to change my internal message. It’s time to learn, believe, and integrate that I AM worthy. And if I can know that truth, then perhaps I can slow down long enough to allow myself to pause and simply feel how some stimulus made me feel. Acknowledge that I had those feelings or a reflexive desire to react in a certain way. Remind myself that my feelings and my thoughts that arise from that stimulus do not make me — well, me. Thoughts and feelings are fleeting. They pass. And it’s okay to feel them and let them pass. And then, and only then, do I decide how to act or not act next.

That’s the power in the pause between stimulus and reaction. There’s grace in that pause. There’s patience and wisdom in there too. That’s where I want to live.

I’m on my way, but I’m not there yet. I have a lifetime of learned behaviors and habituations to unlearn and replace with new practices. I will dive deeply into “how to pause” in a future post. In the meantime, I’d like to explore what my reactivity feels like to the receiver. Empathy will be grounding for me. I’m sure Christophe — being on the receiving end of my reactivity for 10+ years — could write an entire book about this painful topic, but we’ll see what he chooses to share in an upcoming post…