Proactive vs Reactive: How to be More Proactive and Conquer Your World
Proactive vs Reactive Behaviour
We’ve all done it:
Looked through the window to see rain and grey clouds, and decided it’s a miserable day.
Been criticised by someone at work or home and consequently felt down for hours afterwards.
Watched our sports team win a game and felt on cloud nine for a week.
For better or worse, these are all examples of reactive behaviour, where our feelings depend on the results of external events or processes that we have no control over. They are completely outside our sphere of influence, yet they can control our lives.
The Reactive Behaviour Trap
Reactive people are essentially like characters in a movie, playing out the script. They often resemble powerless victims, having their lives run by external factors. They have little control over their emotions.
Instead, their emotions are dictated by someone or something else; by circumstance and the outside environment.
You’ll often hear phrases like: “If only they treated me a bit better, I could be happy”. “I have to do this because…”. “I wish I had more time for that, but…”.
We are all guilty of being reactive from time to time, often without even knowing. For most people it’s the default program. I know I’m guilty.
And example for you:
I had an article published on Natural News yesterday, which is a pretty big site in the health and wellness space. And I also had a good workout. I felt great.
Sometimes though, when I struggle with finding ideas for blog or if I’m sick; I don’t feel so great. I have no real control over any of these events – they have control over me.
But whether we realise it or not, we choose to subordinate ourselves to those forces that are outside our sphere of influence.
We choose to experience happiness, unhappiness, anger, frustration, boredom and elation.
We choose to create the habits of wallowing in self-pity, shifting the blame, and feeling powerless.
But we don’t have to…
Finding Freedom and Being Proactive
When we’re told that the situations we find ourselves in and the emotions we experience are largely from our own doing, it can be hard to accept. It involves a huge paradigm shift, with us taking responsibility for our current circumstances.
The natural reaction is often to resist and to argue otherwise, until eventually the light bulb flicks on. The eureka moment occurs – the realisation that we are in fact in control, if we want to be.
If we can choose to be reactive and be controlled by external factors, we can also choose not to be.
We don’t have to be influenced by unpredictable events or the negative emotions of others.
As holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl stated in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
If Viktor managed to choose his response amongst the unimaginable conditions of the Nazi death camps, witnessing endless suffering and losing almost all of his family; surely we can do it in our everyday lives?
This type of behaviour is proactive.
When we’re proactive, we only concern ourselves with things that are inside our sphere of influence, rather than worrying about things we can’t do anything about. We look towards what we are able to control and change, and this includes the way we react to any given situation.
We can’t always directly alter how someone else behaves or talks to us. We have no control over the weather. We don’t even have a say in how our favourite team will do on the weekend. But we can choose our thought processes and our responses.
Being proactive is not a case of being a robot and having no emotions. Rather, it’s being in complete control over your emotions. It’s making the transition – from other people and circumstances being in charge, to being in charge of yourself.
Instead of shifting the blame elsewhere, you can begin to carry the responsibility. You stop thinking that the external circumstances need to change, and realise that you can instead alter yourself internally. The proactive approach is one that deals with things from the inside-out perspective.
And it applies to all sorts of situations. In relationships; where you work on your own behaviour and focus on being a loving person, rather than worrying about the faults of your partner. In business; where you work to your strengths and contribute as much as you can to the company rather than letting your belittling boss bring you down.
It even applies to healthcare.
For example, the traditional medical model often treats people in a reactive way. Not all the time, but quite often. When there is a problem, they try to respond to it by treating the patient’s symptoms… This is an outside-in approach.
On the other hand, many alternative medicinal models such as functional medicine and acupuncture tend to look at healing from an inside-out perspective. They are often being proactive in their method, addressing the underlying causes of them symptoms, and altering them.
They change the thing that can be changed (the cause), rather than trying to treat the symptoms (the result of the cause).
Being proactive is not exactly a new concept.
Stoic philosophy promoted the idea of concerning yourself only with the things you could influence – your thoughts and your actions. Everything else is indifference; not worth worrying about.
The Buddhists also believe that there are no inherently good or bad events. Only our judgements of those events make them good or bad, and we are free to choose.
And that, we are.
How to Be Proactive in a Reactive World
So how can we apply this proactive thinking to our everyday lives? How can we make the shift from to being proactive vs reactive, to start living a healthier lifestyle?
Here are a few things you can have a go at:
1. Notice reactive behaviour.
Begin with the little things in your life, not with the death of a loved one or the suffering of innocent people. Just the everyday situations; in work perhaps, or in your relationships.
Notice your reactive behaviour when it occurs, in the moment. Maybe you swear at someone who cut you up in traffic, or you et down because your favourite team lost again.
And likewise, note how many others around you do the same, and how easy it is to be reactive. Don’t judge, just watch. It’s a big first step.
2. Watch your language.
Our language tells us a lot about our level of reactivity or proactivity.
Reactive people tend to use “I can’t”, “If only”, “I have to”. These phrases are shifting the blame to outside circumstances, getting rid of responsibility.
To be more proactive, consciously change these to more positive, empowering phrases. “I can”, “I will”, “I want to”. A simple change in language can make a big difference.
3. Analyse your past mistakes.
Whilst you can control your actions, you can’t always control the consequences.
Invariably, you’ll have made mistakes in your past – we all have. But we can’t change the past, so dwelling on those mistakes is a form of reactive behaviour.
Instead, accept that you made them, take whatever you can learn from them, let them go, and move on.
4. Make commitments.
Making goals and working towards them can help empower you and reinforce the control you have over your life. If you achieve what you set out to, you realise that you can be responsible for your circumstances, regardless of the external forces.
Time to be more proactive – it’s over to you
Becoming more proactive is essentially a practice of mindfulness. It involves you becoming more aware of everything that is going on in the moment.
Just like during a meditation session, during your proactivity practice you’ll notice how easy it is to slip into reactive mode. You’ll realise how so many others live their lives on reactive autopilot.
As with everything, take your time and don’t be too hard on yourself. We’ve been raised in a reactive world, and have developed lifelong habits that will take time to change.
And despite our best efforts, we’ll never reach perfection – it’s an illusion.
That’s not to say we can’t change though, and get a healthier balance between proactive vs reactive behaviour.
Just take it slow, enjoy the self-reflective process, and savour that feeling of taking charge of your life.
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