Contributed by Nadia Persun, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Another marital session with Mary was spent discussing her frustration with her husband. She told once again how he lacks empathy and ability to listen, has poor communication skills and messes up most of the things he does. In the last few months of therapy, her husband was trying hard to yield to the wishes of his wife, to hear her concerns and to reform his behaviors to her liking. Despite his trying, his efforts were fruitless. In fact, the harder he tried, the more faults his wife was able to identity. The more Mary confronted her husband, the more he withdrew, thus, allowing Mary to add an extra item to her complaint list: “He never talks to me!”
Watching this couple disagree and grow increasingly disheartened with each other, I began realizing more the limitations of trying to control another person’s actions and behaviors, while overlooking the power of examining and controlling our own. Every person can recall instances when blaming the situation or other people served as a convenient way to justify why their own actions and behaviors failed. There may be some truth to finding problems on the outside: the environment may indeed foster or impede our efforts. However, there is certainly a limit to the extent of how outside factors control us. We are still responsible for our reactions and free to choose our actions and behaviors. We have the freedom of being “proactive”. Proactive control means finding the sense of responsibility within ourselves, feeling in control of the choice of own actions, even when the outside conditions are not favorable.
People failing to take the proactive type of control over the situation commonly resort to being “reactive” in their response. They don’t attempt to examine how they may be at least partially responsible for the situation. Instead, they channel their time and energy into noticing and complaining about their disappointments, becoming more irritable and dissatisfied. Busy criticizing others, blaming the circumstances, complaining and ruminating, reactive people are left with no energy for examining the situation with the intent to generate plans to improve it. Therefore, they get “stuck” in the very situation that they dislike and wish to escape.
There is a drastic difference in the choice of vocabulary between proactive and reactive people. Proactive people say “I can; I chose; I want.” Reactive people tend to say “I wish; if only; I have to.” Being a proactive person does not imply overlooking or ignoring an unfavorable situation. On the contrary, it includes a careful examination of the circumstances and events that led to disappointments. It may also include a period of inactivity and grief. However, at some point, a proactive person makes a choice to transition to an active phase, examining the situation from a new angle and trying to understand own contribution to the problem. Next step includes mobilizing personal resources to generate a new plan and act differently, and not wait for others to change.
Reactive people begin with a critical review of the negatives of the situation they find themselves in and never abandon their “frustrated examination.” They convince themselves that the change does not depend on their own beliefs and actions but is contingent on the changes outside of them. They blame their partners, the circumstances, wishing they would change. Reactive people gradually start feeling like victims: helpless and hopelessly immersed into a never ending cycle of problems. Their problems seem grave and permanent and reactive people start believing that they do not have the control or power to change anything. Facing this sad realization, they get further immersed into a pattern of chronic complaining and blaming. This unattractive habit pushes people away and creates more relationship problems and disconnect. Thus, reactive people get trapped in the wicked cycle filled with sense of misery, hopelessness, and disappointment with the world and behavior of other people.
What can you do if after reading this article, you identify with behaving reactively? The fact that you are able to recognize and admit it is the first and very important step reforming yourself toward becoming proactive. Change begins with a careful and non-defensive examination of our own behavior, realizing that in most situations, we are a least partially responsible for some of the difficulties we face. Next step includes focus on changing personal behavior, training self to react to others with greater acceptance and flexibility. Becoming proactive includes refraining from complaining about others but working to change our own expectations and behavior, and acting differently regardless of the circumstances or your partner’s actions. Being proactive means deciding to stop waiting for a perfect time or a rescue team to arrive. It comes down to the choice of simply going through difficult experiences with much complaining and lack of action, or growing through enduring the same experience by understanding that the secret of change is within each of us, thus becoming stronger and wiser as a result of this personal transformation.