Recognize when you become reactive and flag the moment

Several times a day, we shift in an out of an emotionally reactive frame of mind. Such transitions can be subtle or dramatic, but since they are so integrated into our conscious experience they typically go unnoticed. By catching the shift and registering it in some concrete way, we can enhance our awareness of aspects of these experiences that have previously flown beneath our radar.

Instructions: Watch for instances when you go from feeling relaxed and free, to doing as you choose, to feeling a compelling pull in one direction or another. This shift is often accompanied by a distinct surge (or milder swell) of emotion followed by a morphing of your the motivational landscape. You might feel a deflated feeling and a sense of “Why keep working at this?” Or you may become highly focused and feel like you “have to” try hard to make something go a certain way. At least a few times during the next week, when you experience this kind of shift, say to yourself, “There is that sense of urgency,” “There is that dread,” “There is one of those impulses,” or “There is that hollow feeling in my gut.” You can touch your palms together or repeat another gesture to flag these reactive moments as soon as you recognize them. You might use a golf counter to tally instances, or make hash marks on a business card or sticky note in your wallet.

Record or verbalize outer and inner events that coincide with becoming reactive.

It’s helpful to keep a record of what goes on around and within us at those times when we find ourselves being pulled into a reactive state of mind. It’s sort of like taking the time to gather reconnaissance when we find ourselves in enemy territory.

Instructions: Carry a small notebook, sticky notes or use whatever scrap of paper is handy at the time to write down something about the situation (the spot) and what’s going through your mind (the thought) when you feel more emotionally reactive than usual. Don’t even try to document every reactive moment, but do catch at least a couple a day. Keep it brief. The spot may be nothing more than “3:45 @ office;” the thought, “Fed up with paperwork.” Most people begin by recording the spots and thoughts that coincide with their destructive habit. Over time, they broaden their focus and include other emotionally reactive patterns.

Keep some kind of record of the factors that keep making you reactive.

As you become more familiar with your own reactivity, you will notice recurring emotional themes. Since verbal memory is impaired during emotional states, we tend to forget about how often something makes us reactive unless we keep a record that we can add to over time and refer to later.

Instructions: Jot down in a little notebook or on a 3×5 card, brief descriptions of the emotional themes that trigger your reactivity. For instance, “craving,” “rejection,” “pressure to perform” or “uncooperative daughter.” Then, as the themes repeat themselves, put checks or hash marks.