• Robert Clarke MFT

Respond or React?


What’s the difference between reacting and responding? In my mind, reacting is what you do when you need to take action immediately to avoid serious harm or death. It’s something you do without thinking because the flight-or-fight part of your “old brain” is responding automatically to a situation that it has determined is critical. This is a wonderful feature of our brain. It takes over so that when there's a physical threat we don’t even need to think. (I’m sure there are times that you’ve found yourself hitting the brakes or swerving in your car to avoid a collision, without even thinking about it. That’s FOF taking over.)


Responding is different. It requires the use of the cortex – the part of the brain that makes us human. In order to respond, you need to think. Responses are slower than reactions, but they’re wiser because we use our intelligence when we respond.


I bring this up because it seems like too many of us are reacting when we should be responding. Why? Because we’re interpreting something that's happening as a threat to our safety. Perhaps we’re in an argument with a spouse, or maybe in a stressful work situation. Neither of those situations (assuming there is no threat of physical violence) is a threat to your safety, and in both cases you'll need to use your cortex to figure out what to do. If you don’t, you’ll wind up using the “old brain” and since it has no “intelligence” you will wind up doing something that is literally “stupid.”


Have you ever found yourself reacting in a situation that required responding and then wondering why you said what you said or did what you did? That’s exactly why: you were reacting and not engaging your cortex (that is, not thinking). When the FOF part of your brain reacts, it will do whatever it determines is necessary to protect you. In an argument, this might involve yelling something, or calling someone names, or maybe even breaking or throwing something. None of those things will resolve the argument and usually resolution only comes when both of you “cool down” and get out of FOF and back into the responsive mode so that you can actually use your brain. (This is why some people talk about doing things like counting to ten – so that they can engage their cortex before FOF takes over.)


- When are times that you find yourself reacting instead of responding?

- What things can you do to avoid becoming reactive?

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My posts are purely my own thoughts and opinions and are not meant to give you advice, but instead to give you insight into some of my thinking. My hope is that you will find useful information here as you navigate your life and relationships.

© 2020 by Robert Clarke MFT. CA License #91187

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