Recently I read an article which spoke about the benefits of “under-reacting” when life’s difficult situations unfold and it got me thinking. In my own life I can often observe the full spectrum of emotional reactivity – on one end, I sometimes may magnify and over-react all the way to the other where I’ve minimized mine or another’s viewpoints or pain. Initially I reflected on the times I have over-reacted and made a situation worse by escalating tension in myself and others; always in that moment feeling justified for “using my voice” and not being a victim. In those moments the only thing that matters is the discharging of emotional energy – to just let off steam and vent out the frustration boiling up inside me, but I never felt very good about myself afterwards. Usually the perspective of me, my and mine was the only view in sight and it wouldn’t be until much later that I could wipe the lens of my egoic filter and see through the wounded eyes of those I had hurt.

Mindfulness, when I practice it, is helping me clean the lens and take another’s perspective which isn’t easy when you’re triggered. And often we’re not even aware that we’re being triggered – we’re just in that automatic defense of fight, flight or freeze.

Which is why it so essential to practice mindfulness – because it’s only then that we can begin to see the origin of the trigger. And right behind the trigger is usually a cascade of judgments and interpretations that are ready ammunition to inflict harm onto ourselves and others. We feel justified in that moment to fire those words and actions but unless we’re really threatened (which we usually aren’t) those bullets can quickly tear into the heart of our relationships.

I often tell myself and my clients that we are each other’s mirrors. Those things that hurt us when inflicted by our spouse or coworker might just be the same things we’re doing without conscious awareness. The anger and frustrations we feel about the state of the world might in some way being mirroring our own self-deprecating thoughts about how we’re in relationship to our own life. So paying attention to the signs is critically important and delving further into inquiry can provide useful insights and help connect the dots. And when we know more, we can process more within ourselves and ultimately relate that knowing to the outside world without inflicting more pain.

Which brings me to the art of under-reactivity and what that might look like in my own life. Believe me I’ve spent a lot of my life over-reacting – if not in the actual moment of the situation then certainly later whenever I could offload my frustrations and vent to a trusted friend with the usual diatribe of “and then he said this….can you believe that?….I’ll never talk to her again, etc..”

Lately I’ve been more aware of how that feels in my body, mind and spirit and it’s just not good. Don’t get me wrong I think it is healthy to share events and experiences with loved ones, but what I’m noticing is that I’m rarely able to just state the facts without adding layers of judgments and interpretations. This generally produces over-reactivity. I mean what’s the point? The event or experience is over at this juncture so why get elevated?

Of course we should acknowledge our hurt emotions and name them because to invalidate our own experience is to be in a state of denial and repression soon follows.

So instead of:

Can you believe what so and so said to me? She’s so negative and thinks only of herself. I bet she did that because she really wanted to make herself look good in front of our boss. She does this all the time and I’m done dealing with her. She’s going to be sorry for treating me that way!”

The alternative might be:

So and so said this to me. I felt hurt. I don’t know why she said it. I feel a loss of trust. I might need to talk to her about it later, but right now I feel sad and am unsure about the relationship.”

This is an exercise in just naming the facts and noticing that there might be some consequences for behaviors that aren’t healthy for us and our relationships. When we’re practicing mindfulness of our emotions in this way we’re creating the environment for “neurons that fire together wire together” and we’re literally changing the structure of our brains. Over time and with enough practice we can achieve a more healthy response to the stressors in our life.

If we set an intention to say “yes” to life and to allow current events to unfold as they are without clinging or striving for life to be different, then practicing “under-reacting” becomes a tool to use in those stress filled situations where we often find ourselves regretting behavior later.

In fact some psychologists have said we actually may “think or imagine ourselves into almost any emotional state.” That’s how much power we really have but it’s not available if we’re already on a train of thought leading us toward fear and negativity.

So in my mindfulness practice I have been using the tool of under-reactivity and I have found that when triggered, I pause and just notice the pull toward saying or doing something in that moment and underneath that I also give some space to notice:

  • I’m aware that I have this thought about so and so.
  • I’m aware that I’ve just now had a judgmental thought that may or may not be true.
  • I’m aware that I feel my pulse increase.
  • I’m aware that I have a tightness in my throat.
  • I’m aware that I want to run away
  • I’m aware that I want to complain about so and so

And in this process I’m pausing more and not rushing right into the story of me, my and mine. I’ve actually chosen a different response and the neurons in that part of my brain are wiring together while the old pathway is becoming a weedy area ready for pruning.

I’m setting an intention to be more “cool, calm water” when it comes to the stressors in my life. When I think about where cool, calm water lives, it’s usually under the surface of the bumpy, choppy waves and I can only find it when I drop down underneath my own egoic nature and tap into the wellspring of living this moment in the present.

Susan Milner is a licensed mental health practitioner and life coach from the state of Nebraska where she works with a diverse population of clients assisting them in living their best life. She is a teacher in mindfulness and contemplative practices and finds the value in stillness and silence.  Susan writes a weekly blog titled “The Middle Way” on her site and you can follow her on Twitter or on her site.


Image courtesy of Jeremy Bishop.