When Your Reaction Doesn't Fit the Situation
“It has been 4 hours, and you regularly have to go after 2. You WILL go to the potty!” I said firmly, with much greater intensity than I would have liked. My two-year-old son felt the tension in the room and of course, dug his heels in even more and resisted going potty for several long hours after that, not to mention the repeated screaming, melt downs, and time outs that would soon follow.
But if I’m being honest, seemingly the worst part about the situation was the anger rising in me. The “I can’t think straight, nothing else matters, this is the end of the world” kind of anger. The kind of anger that leads you to be the kind of person you would never let anyone else be to your kiddos. The kind of anger that you feel horrible for later, and perhaps most upsettingly, the kind of anger that didn’t fit the situation.
The worst thing that could have happened was my little guy goes potty on the floor. And then we clean it up together. What was so scary about that, that it made me lose my mind?
Well quite literally, that “losing your mind” is exactly what happens on a neurological level when we feel triggered in some way. And this neurological process leads us to feel like we are in a different situation than we are in, that the threat we are experiencing is actually much greater, and thus we may start responding more intensely (or less intensely) than is appropriate for that situation. My reaction no longer fits the present moment because my brain and body are telling me I am somewhere from the past.
Before I go further, I want to be clear that there are many reasons that our reaction may not meet the needs of the moment. Perhaps we are lacking some key information that would help us make a good decision about something, so we respond less optimally. Maybe we’re really hungry, or didn’t get a good sleep last night, or are juggling too much at work, and these things are making us more susceptible to reacting negatively. We’re also human beings with a sin nature inside of us (Romans 3:23; Romans 7:23), and a real enemy outside of us (1 Peter 5:8), that are trying to keep us from living the lives God intends for us to live. These, and many other factors, may be contributing to the negative feelings we experience inside of us and the negative choices we make relationally.
The root of our reaction will help direct us to the most appropriate remedy for the reaction. And sometimes, our reaction doesn’t fit the present moment because the root for our reaction is in an entirely different situation all together.
Think for a moment about the last time you noticed yourself feeling about, or responding to a situation in a way that, perhaps in retrospect, didn’t seem to be very helpful or appropriate for the needs of the moment.
How were you feeling about yourself in that situation?
This is a much different question than “how were you feeling in that situation.” The latter often leads us to answers such as “I felt frustrated because he did that to me!” or “I felt sad because of what happened.” Often our answer to this question shows a focus on the external; what someone did or didn’t do, what happened or didn’t happen, rather than our internal meaning of the situation. When we focus externally, we can end up feeling powerless and out of control to change anything because the outside world often is not in our control.
The question, “How were you feeling about yourself” in a particular situation brings the focus back on self and shows us how we are interpreting the situation. And it is the meaning we make of a situation, rather than the situation itself, which often determines our response. And when we understand the story we’re telling ourselves, and where that story comes from, we have the power to make a change!
So, if you were to fill in the blanks, “I am…” when you think about that time you responded in a way that didn’t fit the situation, what would you say? What was the underlying belief or feeling about yourself in that situation?
Here are some examples sorted into categories:
Self-defectiveness: I am not good enough; I am a bad person; I am not lovable; I am inadequate; I am worthless; I am weak; I am permanently damaged; I am shameful
Responsibility: I should have done something; I should have known better; I should have done more; It is my fault
Safety: I am not safe; I can’t trust anyone; I am in danger; I can’t protect myself; I am going to die; It is not ok to feel or show my emotions
Control: I am not in control; I am powerless; I am helpless; I am weak; I cannot be trusted; I cannot trust myself
When I think back to that potty training moment where I lost my cool, the feeling I had about myself, or the meaning I made of the situation, was “I am powerless.” And truthfully, there was absolutely nothing I could do to make my little guy use the potty. Nothing! No matter how hard I tried, I could not control whether he goes on the floor or in the potty. Bummer!
But this potty training moment of not being in control hooked in a part of my brain which held a memory of another time I was not in control. A time where the stakes were much higher, and the damage was much greater; a moment that caused deep pain. Perhaps the first time I felt “powerless.”
And folks, herein lies a link between the past and the present. Now, my mind no longer thinks am I safe in the bathroom with my toddler entering the exciting phase of learning to potty, but is telling me I am back in the past. Hence, I start responding intensely and inappropriately in the present, to neutralize the threat of the past.
So for your situation, what was the meaning you made about yourself? And when was the first, or an earlier time in your life, that you felt that way? Or, where did you learn that message about yourself? The answers to these questions can often lead us to the root of our reactions. And when we know where the root is, we have greater ability to nourish that root the way it needs to grow.
Our reactions are often the only things we can see. It’s like a plant that springs up from the ground. And when our reactions are unhelpful or inappropriate for a particular situation, we can feel discouraged, embarrassed, or shameful about our behaviors. It’s like noticing a plant that’s leaves are withering, fruit is damaged, and looks ugly, and judging it as a bad plant.
But what if we could see this plant compassionately, and curiously? Rather than judging the plant as bad or wrong or needing to be fixed, what if we started getting curious about what its roots looked like? What kind of soil has it been growing in? Maybe there’s something beneath the surface that needs a kind gardener to nourish and bring healing to, to enable the plant to blossom as it is intended.
So the next time you find yourself responding to a situation in a way that doesn’t seem to fit, try practicing curiosity about the meaning you are making about yourself, and where that is actually coming from. You might find that you are actually responding to a situation from the past, which can lead you to uncovered depths of you that are hurting and need the love of Christ. And it is when we shine the loving light of Christ onto these roots that we have the power to take responsibility for them in effective ways, rather than letting them wreak havoc in our lives beneath the surface.
Bridget Butterworth MA, LPC Intern
Supervised by Sarah Walters MA, LPC-S
Published on Sep 14 @ 11:24 AM CDT