Sink Beneath Your Reactions

Last week, I received an email. It was one I had expected for a while, and though I was in the middle of a stressful day I paused to read it. The contents challenged me, and I noticed my heart felt like a painful metal disk. Within moments of reading the email I found myself typing a response, editing it, typing more. The defensive part of me thought I was being very grounded and rational. A deeper, quieter voice kept reminding me that I did not have to respond to this email right now, and suggested it’d be best to wait before sending it. Yet I sent.

That quiet voice was a sign I wasn’t being fully grounded and rational, as was the later realization that part of me wanted to reread the exchange repeatedly while another part felt uncomfortable about it all. My ego idea of who I was did not easily accept that I could respond impulsively, and as someone who often overthinks everything it was hard to recognize that I was avoiding sitting with the response engendered in me by the email. After a few days, I finally reread the exchange with a cooler head and decided I needed to acknowledge my defensive response and apologize for it.

I felt attacked, and I reacted. Responding in the heat of the emotion, however, I did not pause to reflect. What in me feels a need to defend? Is there something in these words that are true but hard to look at? Is there a story about myself that felt attacked? Is there some old vulnerability that got hooked? Am I upset about something else happening in my life? Is this a sign the person is communicating in bad faith?

These are all good questions and not ones that will be answered in the microseconds between feeling the emotion and acting on it. Reacting in the heat of the emotion tends to make things messier. Though it feels relieving, it does not always bring the resolutions we truly want. The emotion itself is valid, it is pointing toward something that needs to be known and named, but to get there we need some pausing and self-observation.

Image of a sunset over water; in silhouette is a land mass and a person looking downward, as well as the person's reflection in water.
Image of a sunset over water; in silhouette is a land mass and a person looking downward, as well as the person’s reflection in water. Photo by Seth Willingham.

I’ve been particularly reactive lately, so after that big one I’ve been practicing the pause. Here’s one way a pause could play out:

  • Recognize the emotional upset
  • Notice the first stories of what my upset is about
  • Check in with my body, what is physically happening
  • Take a deep breath, and invite my awareness to deepen into the body
  • Take another deep breath, and invite my awareness to deepen
  • Quietly watch the thoughts and feelings
  • If that takes a while, find a trusted friend or confederate who will let you vent
  • Wait until the stories shift to ones that feel calmer and more grounded

This practice is not so easily done in face-to-face conversations, or situations that need a quick response. In that situation, when you recognize you are upset, you might:

  • Stop saying or doing whatever it is you’re saying or doing
  • Take a breath
  • Say, “I am feeling [defensive/angry/upset/reactive]. I need a moment.”
  • If the people around you continue to behave in ways that escalate your feelings, excuse yourself.
  • If not, continue with the process by checking in with your body