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Trapped in Reactivity, Resistance and Compulsion

Updated: Feb 7, 2022


Remi Pearson


The illusions that most of us are taught to believe seem so completely real. We believe that we are not the cause of our own pain. We are taught that whatever is the problem, whether it’s within us or outside of us, can be “fixed” by something changing “out there”.

In reactivity, coping with this illusion becomes a painful conflict with our own mind and with the world around us. We adapt to this version of reality by going into stress, overwhelm, feeling threatened, fear, anger, or antagonism. At it’s worst, we are ill-equipped to handle these negative emotions, and were never taught how to deal with them, so instead we convert their energy into anxiety.

To get rid of the anxiety, we push away what we believe is the “source” of the anxiety, or we fight with the source of anxiety. It can be a loved one. A situation. A conversation. A family drama. Whatever we’ve decided the “cause” of the anxiety is gets our intense scrutiny, judgement, and blame. It was them. It is this situation. It is their manner in the conversation. It’s because they don’t understand. It’s because they don’t listen. It’s because no one cares. It’s because my job sucks. It’s because they’re so rude/mean/angry/unbearable.

We don’t pause and give ourselves a breath. We don’t pause and consider what’s going on within us. All the energy, fear, and focus are placed “out there”, directed at the person, the thing, or the event.

If they change. If this situation is better. If I don’t have to deal with this. If only they would understand. If this would just disappear. If only this had never happened. If I withdraw. If I act like I don’t care. If I cut them off. If I retaliate. If I get loud and demanding. If I make them understand. If I shame them. If I blame them.

The energy becomes what I call reactivity. It’s the immediate, rapid reply to what we don’t want. The reactivity is energy directed outward at someone or something. Or it could be directed at ourselves with self-recrimination and blame. It will happen quickly, without conscious thought, and will feel completely justified and appropriate to the situation. There will be righteousness. There will be the certainty that the reactivity could be no other way. There will be a closed mind to any alternative but the reactivity.

Anyone who is part of this drama is also going to be doing their version of reactivity. They will have their version of “stuff” they haven’t resolved, yet. Now there are two people with “stuff” expecting the other person, because everything is external, to not bring their stuff, as well as handle the other person’s stuff. Both people are giving their “stuff” to the other person. Neither person can deal with their own stuff, so how could they possibly also take on the “stuff” handed to them by someone else?

Add to that the strong emotions that can be involved when it’s an intimate relationship, and the cycles become heightened, and the negative spiral becomes inevitable and often repeated. It becomes so automatic it’s as if this is how it is meant to be, and that there is no other choice. Both people are blind to the chaos they set off in the other person because they can only feel their own pain, and only listen to their own self-talk about how it’s the other person’s “fault” they feel how they feel. As the other person reacts with their stuff, we see them not treating us with the kindness, compassion and care that we were needing to soothe our own anxiety. They see the same problem in us. Both people are in flight, fight, fawn, or freeze mode, unconsciously waiting for the other person (or the event) to see the error of its ways so they can be rescued from their own fear.

Whether it’s a person or an event, the reactive person is driven to get away from the anxiety they feel, without ever dealing with the negative feelings that lay underneath the anxiety. Getting away from the anxiety becomes any number of compulsions as we try to control what we perceive as the “source” of our anxiety.

This compulsion is the thing we think, or we’ve conditioned ourselves to think, will relieve the anxiety. We may reject the person. Get mad at the situation. Shut down. Blame. Judge. Over-think. Distract ourselves with addictions.

We link the tension with tension-relieving through acting on a programmed compulsion.

We keep placing the “cause” of our anxiety outside of us, onto the thing, the object, the place, the person, the situation.

Because we keep placing it out there, we keep repeating it.

It becomes about trying to make our outside different, and aligned with our preferences, so that we don’t get the tension within us again.

We may become a perfectionist. We may distant ourselves from people. We may cling to people. We may get stuck in the same drama over and over. Whatever it is, we believe on some level this is working for us and getting us what we want – relief from the tension.

And it does work, for a time. We get relief in pushing the blame outside, trying to control that variable, or shutting that type of variable out so we never have to deal with it again.

But it’s short term, because the world is never going to align with our preferences all the time. It never can.

We seek to control outside of us and fail to develop the ability to handle and welcome the uncertainty outside of us.

We place responsibility for our anxiety outside of us, so we always will either experience anxiety or will try to get what we prefer “out there” to avoid the anxiety.

In this state, we forget that when things become challenging it is a driver that can serve to help us evolve. We assume and act as if something is wrong.

The question becomes, what do you do to relieve the tension you feel? What do you do when you feel bored? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Sad? Disappointed? Angry? Judged? Criticised? Blamed? Uncertain? Lonely? Fearful?

We may dissociate and disengage from the situation. You may know someone who, whenever there is the slightest unease in the situation, shuts down and don’t speak. They become invisible and won’t contribute to the resolution of the situation. They go along with whatever presents itself from the “groupthink”.

This compulsion is what we do to avoid discomfort, inconvenience, tension, anxiety or fear. We seek to give ourselves a break from the tension, we want automatic and immediate results, and we become outraged at the delays in what we think will give us relief from our tension.

We then use our daily activities to shield us from the ambiguity that we can’t tolerate, expending energy that could be utilised for crafting our ideal life on avoiding the ambiguity, managing it, repressing it, arguing with it, fighting with it, and blaming it for our tension.

Controlling the uncontrollable can show up in thousands of ways. In rigid attitudes about how people “should” behave in a pandemic. In TV addiction. Tidying. Organising. Busyness. Blaming. Complaining. Distracting ourselves. Numbing out. Dissociating. Shaming others. Shaming ourselves. Avoiding difficult conversations. Defensiveness. Righteousness. Making light of someone’s experience. Dismissing someone’s experience. People-pleasing. Caretaking others’ emotional needs. Avoiding our own emotional needs. Tuning out our hurt. Pretending everything is fine. Living off hope whilst doing nothing about this moment.

In reactivity, our suffering is inherent, because we resist the truth of the ambiguity of this moment, and that what is changing or uncertain should be permanent, reliable, and predictable. Our compulsions then rise to combat the fluidity and ambiguity of the moment.

Instead of casting our attention inwards, toward our own mind, we reach for something “out there” that is familiar and that we associate with relief from our anxiety. And then we wonder why we continue to feel the tension, the bereavement of aloneness, and the perpetual hurt.

We never develop the inward reflection that would enable us to release the tension, and replace it with peace, calm, compassion, and joy.

We’ll look at how to look within in another article.

Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on this important topic. 😊

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