I react, therefore I am. In some circumstances, an instantaneous reaction is vital for survival. Imagine the situation of having to step out of the way of an incoming bus. In many other circumstances, however, an instantaneous reaction is not advisable, not appropriate, or not the best possible course of action.
A reaction may be defined as spontaneous and unplanned, too quick and immediate to be fully controllable. We react based on our temperament, our personal history, our experiences, on what we have learned, and on our expectations.
Each of us has a specific and fairly predictable reaction to certain events. With insight and self-observation, we are able to anticipate how we might react to an unpleasant encounter (with a flash of anger, or with forced indifference) or to a very pleasant event (with a very physical display of joy, or with subdued elation). Our reaction depends so much more on who we are, as unique individuals, than on the circumstances that cause it, which may be very ordinary in nature. It is therefore fair to say that our reaction is the necessary and unavoidable way in which we process reality. In a flash, the reaction happens—as it should.
A response is what we do after we’ve had our initial reaction. A response can be planned, thought through, in a word—chosen. In the face of a challenge, we often have more than one response available to us. We can choose the one that is most appropriate to the circumstance. If, for example, we are asked to respond to a criticism we can choose to address it with anger, to analyze it, to rebut it, or to accept it quietly. Even if our first reaction to it may be a flash of anger accompanied by an increased heart rate, allowing ourselves to fully feel this reaction is only the first step. Next comes our response.
The problem that many of us often experience is that there is virtually no daylight between reaction and response. They are one and the same. An angry reaction begets an immediate, automatic angry response. There is no time for us to consider our options, to come up with alternative responses. This, as we all know, is the way in which impulse decisions are made (and later regretted), the way in which conflict escalates, and the way in which even the most ordinary challenges become insurmountable obstacles. Sometime later, we realize that we could and should have responded differently—usually when the damage has already been done.
So, what are we to do? Suppress our reactions and become emotionless? Not in the least. The key is to put some distance between our spontaneous reaction and our chosen response.