Recently, I had an unexpected confrontation which left my nerves buzzing, my head spinning, and my eyes teary. I felt completely blindsided, and my communication was clouded by my own anxiety, discomfort, and an indignant feeling of unfairness. It was an interaction I was not prepared for, and in hindsight, I see it as an opportunity to learn.

When I reflect on it now, I realize I was swept away in the situation and had reacted instinctually based on emotion. It was a challenging, unexpected encounter which felt unfair to me, and I reacted in kind. But the truth is, life will always be full of changes and challenges. We cannot change or escape the challenges life inevitably throws our way, but we can change our relationship and reaction to them.

Other People Do Not Define Us
When I was in graduate school, I watched a recording of the great family therapist Virginia Satir working her magic. She asked a man, over and over, to enact the same scenario where he was upset about a situation with his wife. Each time, Satir responded differently, with wildly different results. At one point she made a statement I’ve never forgotten: “other people are not the definers of me, only people I can respond to in a multitude of possible ways.” Recognizing other people do not define us, and claiming our freedom to respond differently, is wildly freeing. While we do not have the ability to choose the challenges life throws our way, we do have the freedom to choose how we will respond.

Responding Versus Reacting
Therapeutically, I work mainly from a mindfulness perspective. An invaluable mindfulness skill which can be applied to daily life is the concept of “responding” and not “reacting.” As Victor Frankl famously 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.”

While this is one of my favorite quotes, I know from personal experience that this is easier said than done. Our brains are wired to respond in habitual ways to stimuli. In most cases, this is actually a helpful thing! Imagine if you had to think very hard about your every move every time you got behind the wheel of a car or ate a meal. Automatic reactions to familiar stimuli are an efficient way to move through the world, and they free up mental space for other important things.

Yet sometimes this autopilot doesn’t serve us. It can lead to reaching for cake when we are lonely, completely shutting down when overwhelmed, or in my case, responding defensively out of feelings of anxiety and indignancy.

Strategies for Responding Skillfully in a Heated Interaction

1. Take a breath. Sometimes taking a little pause is enough.

2. Tune into how you are feeling emotionally in the moment. Sometimes all it takes is acknowledging “I’m anxious” or “I’m hurt” to take the charge out of the situation.

3. Slow it down! Ask the person if they would like to relocate or sit down. Use the time in transit to think. Speak slowly and ask for clarification.

4. Ask for more time. Let them know you value them and the conversation, but you want to be better prepared. Schedule it for a time when you know you will be in a good head space.

Mindfulness is a Life Skill

Mindfulness is an asset in these cases. John Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as the art of “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” It is in this space of kind awareness where we can pause and take a breath instead of automatically reacting. It only takes one moment, sometimes just one breath, to stop oneself from going down a familiar destructive path, and instead choose a different one. This is “responding” rather than “reacting,” and it is available to us in every moment.

This is where I believe our freedom lies: in awareness, and in the choice available within that awareness.