Many years ago, a friend of mine walked up behind another friend who had just returned from two tours of duty in Viet Nam with the Marines. The vet didn’t hear my friend until she was right behind him. His training kicked in, and he whirled and struck out with a karate chop. Fortunately, he caught himself in time, and my friend apologized profusely for seeming to sneak up on him.
The Marine had spent months in mortal danger, using the survival skills he’d learned, and was still reacting as if he were in the jungle. We are trained much the same way when we’re children and teenagers. Over time, we learn a certain way of reacting that reflects our parents’ attitudes, our school environment, our friends’ attitudes. We may have grown up in a dangerous situation, such as with an abusive parent or being harassed in school, and discovered that being quiet and invisible kept us safer. Or we might have learned to strike out in anger to reduce our risk. When we grow older, we continue those reactions without thinking, just as my marine friend did.
However, now that we’re older, and no longer in the hostile environment, we can consciously choose a different way to respond to our current situation. This is the difference between “re-acting” and “responding.” When we “re-act,” we act in the same way, over and over, automatically. By consciously choosing what kind of result we want, and how we want to feel about ourselves afterwards, we’re “responding” to the situation.
There’s an old adage that goes something like this, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’re always going to get what you’ve always gotten.” By continuing to react in the same way we always have, we’re never going to change and neither will our lives. It’s not easy to change old reaction patterns, but it can be done. We can begin by looking at reactions that aren’t working in our lives.
Do you avoid risk and criticism, but want to achieve more in your life? It may feel scary, but decide to accept the next opportunity that takes you out of your comfort zone. When you get into a disagreement with someone close, do you either lash out or hide? Does this give you the best resolution? If not, assess how you can respond to the situation the next time. Role-play it in your imagination. You may feel an almost irresistible urge to fall back into your old reaction, but resist it, and follow through with your chosen response.
Visualizing the new response can make the new response more automatic. The subconscious can’t tell the difference between a strong image and reality. If we rehearse the new response over and over, the subconscious will tend to act on the impressed response more easily. When you visualize, use all of your senses; such as sight, sound, feelings, even smells to make it more real. The more you practice at visualization, as with any new skill, the better at it you’ll become.
To change the old patterns permanently, we need to choose our responses, and act on them every time the triggering situation arises. Otherwise, we give the subconscious mind conflicting information. If we vacillate back and forth between the old reaction and the new response, the subconscious will tend to draw us back into the familiar mold. However, if we react, but catch ourselves doing it and immediately change to our chosen response, the subconscious will begin to catch on.
As my Marine friend became more comfortable in being back home, in safety, his hair trigger responses began to fade. The same is true of us. Now that we are in a different situation than the one in which we learned to react, we can choose more positive responses. Responses that bring us the results we want.