Mind Matters — Reining in Reactivity or Letting Reactivity Reign Us

Have you ever reacted impulsively to something someone said and gotten defensive? Although there are plenty examples in my own life for this, I will instead remark on an event I observed a while ago.

In a nursing facility where I consult, I went searching for my next client. If I don't find my clients in their rooms, getting their hair done, or playing Bingo, perhaps they are in physical therapy. Indeed, I find Betty in the treatment room tending to her broken ankle. Over a year before, she had had another fall in which she severely injured her head, resulting in possible traumatic brain injury which in turn may hasten cognitive decline.

Nevertheless, Betty is an intelligent and witty woman who loves books and movies more than she can cotton to Bingo. She is not enamored with physical therapy either, but that may not be all her doing. Because on this day, one of the physical therapists announced that Betty told her to stop chewing gum while she was working with another patient. The therapist said, “I just told her not to look!” Phew, I thought to myself, that is quite a reaction on the part of the therapist. So I answered, “Perhaps it would have been better to say, ‘okay’”—reminding the therapist that the patient is after all the (paying) boss. A little later in the conversation the physical therapist blurts out that her mother used to correct her for chewing gum. The plot thickens, I think, and so I respond, “Ah, so Betty got the projection of your mother onto her!”

In other words, the physical therapist was unable to maintain her professional composure when her own personal complex of issues regarding her mother got triggered. The therapist reacts defensively to Betty not because Betty corrected her about chewing gum, but because the therapist in a flash “saw” her mother correcting her. It was her emotional hot button, unrecognizable to her until I remarked on it.

On the other hand, I have witnessed nursing assistants who maintain their professional composure and don't become overwhelmed in emotional reactivity in some pretty trying circumstances. An example: an African American nursing assistant keeps her cool attending to the bathroom needs (not easy in the best scenarios) of a racist resident who may occasionally hurl racist epithets.

When I asked this assistant how she keeps her equilibrium, she replies, “I consider the source and the years when that old person grew up.” That is a courageous example of being able to not become reactive to another’s reactivity.

We are all works in progress. And we all have our emotional hot buttons. However, it is never too late to learn what those hot buttons are or how to calm them when they arise. We can all take time to reflect: “What have I said and why have I said it? What emotions are/were rising in me? Might there be some connection to my family history—about my mother, father, brother, sister?”

When we learn that the Bettys of the world are not our mothers, then we have the reins on reactivity…reactivity no longer reigns us.

An Afterword: Our reactivity can be so off the mark—a week after the interaction between Betty and the physical therapist, Betty remarked wistfully how her husband, now deceased, always had gum in his pockets and how she wished that she could have some. For Betty, gum had an entirely different meaning than what the therapist ascribed.