Whether you’re studying Stoicism, Buddhist Meditation, Mindfulness, or simply practicing How to Not Give a Fuck, the underlying principle remains the same – How to become less reactive and more emotionally stable. How to cultivate a healthy indifference.
Note that this is different than avoidance or non-reactivity. The goal here is NOT to become an emotionless robot. We don’t want you to stop reacting to things and allow everything to happen, that’s not the aim.
Instead, the goal of these practices is to be aware of and in control of your reactions. To be as Steven Covey says, “Response-able” or “able to control our responses”.
This means instead of being swayed by the winds of external circumstance, you’re anchored into your own lack of emotional reactivity.
For example, when your cell phone rings – you don’t have to pick it up.
When a text message or notification comes in – you don’t have to pick up your phone to look at it.
If a new email comes in – it doesn’t have to be the first one that you respond to.
Can you learn to ignore your phone when it rings? Read a text message and not immediately reply? Reply to your emails based on urgency rather than FIFO?
We all have a choice. An ability to choose how we want to react to a given stimuli or situation.
The problem with this is that the brain LOVES habits. It loves automating certain things so that you don’t have to think about it.
In other words, you don’t have a choice and an automation took its place.
For example the first time a notification came up on your phone you probably wanted to see it, it was interesting.
Then after repeating this habit 10 more times with the same reaction, your brain started to create a script for you to follow.
Now every time the phone rings or has a notification, you immediately pick up the phone to look at it.
It’s become a habit. A habit is merely a reaction that happened the same way so many times it became an automation. It became your automatic reaction aka habit.
The problem is that while these small reactions/habits seem innocent, they can ripple over and cause gross over-reactivity and mindless decision making in other areas of your life.
If you can’t control your small reactions, there’s a small chance you’ll be able to control yourself when faced with larger ones.
Now it’s your responsibility to take back the choice of how you want to react. To set the bar on how easy it is to rattle your cage.
The person who doesn’t react? They’re unfuckwithable. Cool, calm, and collected. Nothing can startle them.
I recently read a book called “Pimp” by Iceberg Slim – hell of a name, right? Know how he came across it?
One day someone started shooting at a bar. A gunshot went straight through his top-hat. He didn’t move a muscle. Didn’t even notice that he nearly died. He simply sat there and sipped his drink. Cold as ice. Iceberg. Iceberg Slim.
While we don’t want to strive to be a non-reactive emotionless pimp, we can learn from his ability to remain unflustered. He was a man in-control of his emotions and thus, his reactions.
He realized that we can take back our choice. We can independently choose how we react to situations in life. We can cultivate an inner-self that remains stable regardless of whatever is happening externally.
We can train ourselves to notice our automatic reactions, pause when they happen, and choose a more appropriate response. Then repeat this process over and over until we establish new ways of responding to difficult situations.
We can do this in small ways. For example instead of immediately reacting to a notification on your phone, pause, take a deep breath, and then decide if it’s important or not.
OR Before answering the phone, take a deep breath and smile first. Notice when you’re picking up your phone out of habit.
You can do this in bigger ways too. When someone annoys you at work, instead of immediately reacting you can write it down and discuss it at a later point in time.
For example, I used to be highly reactive with my employees. It caused a lot of disturbance and stress on the team as a whole.
If I saw that they made errors in a project, I would immediately send them a message or give them a phone call. There was zero latency between noticing an error and pointing it out to them.
The problem with this is that it would disrupt their day. Every time I sent a message like this, I distracted them from the work that they needed to do.
I knew that my interruptions were hurting their productivity. I needed an alternative system.
To try something new, I started to keep a list of errors that I noticed throughout the day/week. Instead of immediately calling them out on mistakes, I would wait until a specific part of the day/week and approach them about their performance.
We created a time and a place to discuss errors and mistakes, instead of immediately calling them out and creating an interruption. More importantly, we created a culture of stop and think before reacting.
Instead of blindly reacting we stopped, thought about a proper way to act, and then implemented that action.
It had a wonderful result. Led to less confrontation, more open communication, and less defensiveness. We saved time and improved productivity due to less distractions and had a happier team.
We can apply this in the biggest areas of our life as well. If you’re in a heated situation of some kind where you’re more likely to be emotionally volatile, try to notice your feelings before you react.
OR if you do react, pay attention to what that reaction was, and try to curb it for the future. Sometimes it takes getting pissed off to see “ah, that’s how I react when I’m angry.”
The next time you can work on catching yourself in your anger and making a conscious decision instead. You can familiarize yourself with the feelings associated so you can anticipate the storm or feel it brewing inside of you.
This habit of pausing before blindly reacting is important because it creates SPACE between the stimuli and the reaction. Instead of mindlessly reacting, you can catch yourself, breathe in that space for a second, and then choose what you want to do.
In the moments where life truly tests you, this space will come in handy to make sure you make the right decision instead of allowing your emotions to be in the driver’s seat.
By training ourselves NOT TO REACT to small things (notifications, calls, messages, itches, annoyances), we can then train ourselves to be more mindful when the big challenges do arise.
Here are some easy exercises I like to run that train you to be less reactive in your day to day life:
- When the phone rings take a deep breath before answering – or don’t answer at all and intentionally call back later
- When a notification goes off take a deep breath before looking at it – or try not to look at it at all
- The next time you feel an itch somewhere on your body – don’t scratch it. Try to notice the feeling and stop yourself from automatically reaching for it.
- When moving from sitting>standing, try to take a conscious deep breath before you stand up, or vice versa in opposite standing>sitting.
- Take pauses throughout the day – Instead of mindlessly moving from one activity to the next, pause in-between and take a few deep breaths.
If nothing else, try to cultivate awareness of your blind reactions. Take inventory of them. Notice when something grabbed your attention, or when you handled a tough conversation badly, or when you offended someone accidentally, and take mental note of how you reacted.
Try to think about what you could have done differently. Notice yourself when you’re in a similar situation and intentionally try to implement your new technique. Learn from the implementation and repeat 🙂
Small mindless reactions lead to larger ones in the most important areas of your life. Take inventory of your blind reactions, cultivate a mindful discipline to understand the circumstances that give rise to them, and diligently work to create newer, healthier reactive patterns.
The ability to control how you react to difficult situations is the most important skill to cultivate in life. Good luck on your journey, may you be stable and unfuckwithable.
Also published on Medium.