“What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
The most recent post dealt with the effort to grow one’s self-awareness. One cannot regulate what one is not aware of. Therefore, without self-awareness there can be no conscious self-regulation.
By self-regulation, I am precisely referring to one’s capacity to regulate the degree of influence emotional functioning has over thinking, and ultimately behavior. As the quote above vividly depicts, the actions we take define who we are. It’s not that we don’t experience the full range of human emotions. But the ability to act according to thoughtfully arrived at beliefs, values, convictions and goals, despite emotional states determines our effectiveness.
So what can we do to gain strength in our “self-regulation muscles?” What follows outlines a process I have hit on that has proven beneficial for me. The foundation of the process is comprised of the dimensions of self-awareness discussed previously.
Moving Toward Reactivity Triggers: Through growing self-awareness, I become increasingly aware of my own reactive patterns and the triggers that can activate those patterns. The triggers don’t create the pattern. They only provide the stimulation that “activates.” Once I am aware of what those triggers are, my instinct is to stay away from them; to avoid. The problem with avoidance is it’s like saying I manage my weight by never looking in a mirror or getting on a scale. Avoidance does not equate to management. I will consciously move toward the relationships, situations and people that stimulate my reactivity. Only then can I observe myself in action.
Observing Reactivity in Self: When I am in contact with the reactivity triggers, my main objective is to observe my own functioning, including emotional reactions, thinking and behavior. I pay close attention to what I feel, what I think and what I do.
Self-Reflection: Following the interaction, I reflect on my observations. My reflection includes:
- What did I see in my emotional, cognitive and behavioral functioning?
- In what ways was my functioning driven by beliefs, values, convictions, principles and goals?
- In what ways was my functioning driven by emotional reactivity?
- What features does my reactivity take on? (E.G.- distancing, conflict, blame, giving in, etc.)
- Where can I observe myself getting caught up and taking sides in a conflict between two others?
- How will I modify the way I handle myself when in contact with those relationships and situations in the future?
Re-Engage: I go back into contact with the reactivity triggers, armed with a thoughtful plan for managing my own responses. During this re-engagement, I continue observing my own self-management as well as how others respond to a change in me. Here, the goal is not to change others. The goal is to shift my own functioning and observe how others respond to the shift in me.
This cycle of engaging my triggers, observing self and others and then reflecting continues. Each engagement is like going to the gym. Each time I reflect on the engagement is like the recovery phase of training. This is when the growth occurs. The reflection is the activity that makes the shifts in functioning possible.
The next time you find yourself automatically driven to stay away from a trigger, consider what developmental gold you may be missing. What would it take for you to move toward an experience so you can observe yourself in action?