Behaving differently is one of the most effective ways to show response flexibility— and get different results in your life. But doing things differently is not easy because we are creatures of habit and we tend to behave in ways that we are familiar and comfortable with. While it often feels risky or uncomfortable to try different approaches to deal with things that make us angry, it is worth the effort because, as the saying goes, “If you keep doing what you do, you will keep getting what you’ve got.”
One of the challenges in behaving differently is, of course, coming up with ideas on how else we can behave in a situation since there is a strong tendency to repeat our past and do things as we have learned to do them —often starting in our childhood — without questioning or challenging what we do.
Take, for instance, the woman who learned to break dishes every time she was angry at her husband. She hasn’t figured out yet how to move from reaction to response. In truth, when she gets angry she doesn’t have to break the dishes. There are many other things she could do in response to her angry feelings—take a brisk walk, assertively communicate with her husband, take a time-out, or listen to soothing music—for starters.
Once we understand that a feeling does not necessarily led to any particular behavior, we can give ourselves permission to feel angry. Many people find this concept liberating—to discover that specific actions and feelings are not necessarily connected.
Our feelings constantly shift with the flow of outside events. When the baby is screaming at 4AM, your boss is in a surly mood, your best friend insults you, or your car has a flat tire, it is natural to have negative feelings associated with these things. The flexible person notices these feelings, accepts them and then chooses what to do next. We can attend to the screaming infant, knowing that we can feel sleepy and still attend to business tomorrow morning. Instead of complaining about what a jerk the boss is, we can look for the underlying problem that sparked her anger and find a way to solve it. You can talk to your friend about the insult-maybe he didn’t mean what he said the way you heard it – or- you can elect to laugh it off. And the flat tire? You can accept that this is one of those things that happens that is beyond your control, and proceed to get it fixed.
Ari Novick, Ph.D.