Growth and maturation often lead to a decrease in reactivity. By reactivity, I’m referring to the experience and acting out of feeling states that are more intense or otherwise different than the triggering events would by themselves warrant. Such reactivity is typically sourced in some underlying vulnerability, but might manifest in a number of ways, such as aggression, withdrawal, or emotional numbness. Many of my clients are seeking help for a pattern of reactivity and its destructive consequences within important relationships.

An essential step in working with reactivity is understanding that the intensity of our feeling is often not rooted in the immediate events, as we typically assume. It certainly feels as though it is: a young man’s co-worker made a flip half-joke about his performance in a meeting, and he then felt shamed and deeply angered. The chain is clear: flip comment, then intense feeling. It’s reasonable to conclude that the comment caused the feeling, and the fault is entirely within the co-worker, who then becomes demonized, perhaps for only a moment, perhaps for much longer.

And yet when we look closely at what took place with the co-worker, we see clearly that the moment didn’t contain nearly enough fuel to power the full intensity of feeling the young man had. Perhaps the flip comment was unkind and thoughtless, but ultimately the sting of the comment was merely a match that sparked a reservoir of feeling that was already there. The reservoir of emotion was a dormant powder keg, and had nothing at all to do with the co-worker.

In fact, so much of what we feel is powered far less by the spark of the immediate moment than by our temperament and the years and years of moments and feelings and traumas (big and small) that we carry with us throughout every single day. This is an apparently simple but actually enormously powerful notion to have a good grasp on. Our histories are alive in all of our moments, and in many ways our immediate experiences are passed through the lens of this history. We interpret and react to our worlds in ways that are not dictated solely – or even primarily - by the present situation.

The implication is clear: if we are to meet each moment effectively, if we are to engage other people fairly, we would do well to understand the lens through which we tend to see the world. We would benefit enormously from the ability to discern what is happening “out there” from what we habitually tend to feel as a result of our own deeply held positions. If we believe that what we are experiencing is entirely a reaction to what is happening in the present moment, we are doomed to an eternal repetition, as the underlying patterns and habits simply manifest again and again.