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Reacting vs Responding - HOW and WHO do You Want To Be?

What’s the difference between REACTING to something that happens to us, and RESPONDING to something that happens to us? I’d like to suggest that there’s a huge difference.

To me, reacting to a negative circumstance or person or event is saying, doing, or behaving without thinking. It’s that initial urge we feel when something happens to us and acting on that urge without consideration of anything else – in particular without considering the fallout or consequences of our reaction.

Reacting is primal; it’s what our brains are programmed to do. Our brains are meant to keep us safe, and back in the caveman days, being able to react quickly and instinctively to dangers in the environment kept us safe in the wilderness. And for sure we need to be able to react quickly in modern day, in life and death situations (as in grabbing your child away from an oncoming car or fighting back when someone attacks you). But what about non-life threatening situations? How do you want to be when something triggering or negative happens?

Here’s something to consider – reacting to something without thought and without intention means we’re not in control of our brain. We’re ceding agency of our actions to our impulses; we’re outsourcing our behaviour to our primal brains. Think about that for a minute. Do you really want to outsource your behaviour and actions? Do you really want to give up control over your own integrity, over what is going to be the best for you and your higher self? It might feel good ‘in the moment’ to react – like throw something at the wall or tell somebody off, but that kinda good feeling goes away very quickly? And we’re left feeling…not very good.

I one hundred percent believe that we have agency over our actions, our behaviours, our language, our thoughts, our “reactions” to what is happening to us. And when we take control and become intentional about how we want to behave, then that is called RESPONDING.

Now I’m not saying this is easy. But overall I think we’d much rather be in control than out of control. And we can learn to do this.

I’m reminded of something that Viktor Frankl said. Viktor Frankl is the author of many books, most notably Man’s Search for Meaning and he was a survivor of a Holocaust concentration camp. While in what can only be described as a living hell, he realized that his thoughts, his response to his circumstances, was the one thing that could never be taken away from him. He realized he had agency over his thoughts and responses. He said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” That space between stimulus and response is so infinitesimally small, and yet, there’s enough space there for us to have the power to decide on our response. Or we can choose to ignore that space and just react. But then, according to Frankl, we lose an opportunity for growth and freedom.

To me, growth and freedom means learning about ourselves, expanding into the best version of who we are meant to be, allowing the gifts of the situation to come to us, and freeing us up from the control that our primal reactions have over us. And to me that is a wonderful, amazing gift – knowing that we have a choice about how we live our lives, no matter what.

So how can we learn to take control of our reactions and turn them into more intentional responses?

Number one is always awareness. Awareness of what triggers us, awareness of our values, awareness of how we want to show up in the world, and awareness that how we respond creates a ripple effect not only in our life, but in the lives of those around us.

And we practice! Life is always putting us into situations or in front of people that test us (and therefore teach us). We practice being aware. We practice becoming super honest with ourselves about our typical reactions. Being honest with ourselves is challenging, but also required if we want to gain control over our actions.

We need to decide how we want to be, and who we want to be in these triggering situations and then really work at it when we’re triggered. Something that helps in clarifying this is asking yourself how you want to feel after a triggering encounter. Is it feeling calm, collected, empowered, confident, like a leader, strong? How do you want to feel? And what would make you feel that way?

It's also important to know and live our values. Values are our compass and our guiding light in so many ways, including in how to take agency over our reactions/responses – most critically when life throws us a major curveball.

And the most critical piece of all? It’s super simple. Not easy, but simple. It’s tapping into the power of breath. Taking a breath between the stimulus and the response – being aware enough to do this – lengthens the space, and therefore allows us more time to respond in the way we want. Taking a breath, or a few breaths, allows us to stay present. And that’s what we want. We want to stay present with what’s going on – that’s how we stay in control.

We’ve all just been through a pandemic that has caused massive disruption in our life. How did you react or respond? And how do you continue to react or respond? Remember, we can change how we choose to respond at any time. Once we’re aware of how we’re reacting and that we would rather be responding with control and with personal power, then we can change how we are being.

When we’re aware of what our brain does, we can stop it from going into fight or flight and decide a different thought. The more you do that, the more you create new neural pathways, and the easier it is to pause, be present, and respond in a way that feels good to us. So then, when something negative or triggering happens in your life, you have the awareness, the inner knowing of who you want to be, the gift of breath and the power of staying in the present moment to help you respond in a way that is in perfect alignment with you.


If you’re looking for help with learning how to respond in a way that feels aligned with you, or need help clarifying your values or your purpose (and want someone to support you on this journey), I invite you to book a Discovery Call to learn more about how I can help you live a purposeful, genuine, fulfilled life.


My mission is to help people shine their light more brightly so that together we can make a positive impact in the world.

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