Recovering from Reactivity
As I was walking across a parking lot, carrying a package to a UPS store, a man passed me walking towards his car.
Moments later, he yelled back at me, with some hostility, "Hey lady, do you think you could park any closer to my car?"
I turned around, embarrassed, and headed back to my car.
"I'm so sorry," I offered apologetically, "Would you like me to move it…?"
There was plenty of space between my car and his.
He could easily open his door. Most of the way.
I realized I'd had no trouble getting out of my own car, nor getting a substantial package out of the backseat.
So much happens in those split seconds.
Under fire, I often move into a "tend and befriend" defense, but this was different.
Curious upon realizing that I had done nothing wrong, I chose to engage further.
I walked over as he was twisting and huffing his way into his car and offered again, more directly, "I would be more than happy to move my car if you are having trouble getting in?"
(Was this a passive-aggressive way of calling him out, I wondered in the recesses of my mind....)
"No, it's fine," he snapped impatiently, rolling his eyes at me.
"OK ... I hope your day goes more smoothly from here...."
He slammed his door shut.
I stepped back.
Well, that was stressful.
Walking into the UPS store, I was aware of a mix of shame and anger surging through me. My hands were cold. I put down the package and took a moment to shake them out.
Ugh. I hate interactions like that.
I tracked my feelings, sent off my package and walked back to my car, double checking the parking lines (yes, again!) to see if I really had parked too close?
My parking was just fine.
I sat in my car, a bit shaken, and contemplated the interaction.
First, I judged myself for not "fighting back" or "defending myself."
I wondered if I had been overly accommodating when I "should" have put this man "in his place." I wondered if this was a place where I "should" have "set a boundary."
A lot of forceful thinking arose, rooted in an old paradigm that I've been trying to transform for a long time.
As the wisdom goes, an eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind. I don't want my actions to come from that place anymore.
Next, I realized that I liked the part of me that responded nondefensively with a desire to help.
I offered care, despite how this man had approached and interacted with me. I fielded his hostility without getting defensive, obsequious or aggressive back.
I respect that about myself: it took awareness, clarity, and courage.
But ultimately, I just felt sad.
This small interaction reminded me of how much people are suffering, and easily suffering spreads.
When we don't know what to do with our pain, it builds up and spurts out - sometimes, scatter-shotting over everyone else with unbridled hostility.
I've been that person, too.
I think we all have.
We are all in this together, fielding our own and one another's pain: either with empathy and presence or with defensiveness and disconnection.
We can transform and alleviate the pain in our world, or we can add more pain and hostility into the world by how we choose to respond to one another.
In every moment we have the potential to transform suffering with love.
It doesn't mean others will suddenly start being nicer to you. This man blocked all my efforts and drove away in a huff. Drop your attachment to certain outcomes. But your experience of yourself will change, and who knows what seeds may have been planted in that interaction?
So, if you feel inspired to increase your capacity for responding with care when others are reactive, here are some stages of awareness and skill you might find useful:
Unskilled & Unaware:
We habitually react with defensiveness, submissiveness or avoidance of that person or situation, and are unaware that we are doing it.
Awakening and Aware:
We begin to develop an awareness of our habitual reactions, and we also generate more care about the impact we had on others after the fact.
Capable, with Intention and Effort:
We practice internally resourcing ourselves in the face of others' reactivity and intensity. We increase our self-connection and self-compassion by connecting with our feelings and needs.
We notice and allow what is arising in our bodies.
By not going into an internal conflict with ourselves, we then have energy available to contain our default reactions, and the ability to be curious and choiceful about what is arising within ourselves.
We find ourselves getting more curious about others' perspectives and perceptions, others' feelings and needs.
Integrated, with Ease and Flow:
We find ourselves able to stay grounded, centered and choiceful in the face of emotional intensity.
We accept other people get triggered; we allow space for things to arise, we stay present and empathic, embracing with them and ourselves.
Let's pause and reflect:
What is the next choice I need to make to bring myself closer to embodying that which I long for more of in the world?