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Reacting vs. Responding

Posted June 10, 2014 by Katie Fleming in On the Ladder
Like many, I was left feeling shocked (and a bit disgusted) after watching the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, this Saturday.  If you are unfamiliar with what happened, here is the breakdown:  The beautiful horse California Chrome had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, leaving everyone in the horse racing world excited at the prospect of the first Triple Crown Winner since 1978.  Sadly, California Chrome finished in a tie for 4th place.

My shock and disgust had nothing to do with either the horse or the jockey – they both ran an incredible race, showing remarkable strength, power, and dedication.  They simply did not win.  No, my feelings all rose after watching California Chrome’s owner have an anger outburst on national television.  The owner, Steve Coburn, went off on a rant about how the winner cheated California Chrome out of a Triple Crown victory, and called the winners “cowards”.  Even more, when his wife attempted to intervene, Steve Coburn snapped at her (again, on national television!)

To his credit, Steve Coburn went on Good Morning America to apologize for his rant.  Coburn expressed his regrets with this statement:

[I’m] very ashamed of myself. I need to apologize to a lot of people, including my wife Carolyn. First of all, I need to apologize to the winners, they ran a beautiful race…I did not mean to take anything away from them.

If you read my previous CGN post on how to properly apologize, you know how important I feel apologies are. It takes a lot of guts for someone to take ownership over their actions, and truly apologize.  Good job Mr. Coburn!

Steve Coburn’s reaction after his horse lost the race demonstrates how vital it is to Respond, rather than React, when you’re feeling intensely emotional.

What’s the difference between the two?  When we respond, we are in a calm, centered state of mind, and are effectively expressing ourselves without harming another person.  When we react, we are saying or doing whatever feels right in the moment, without much thought or consideration to how those around us are affected.

When we are feeling an intense mix of emotions such as anger, sadness, shame, and grief, therapists refer to that state as “flooding”.  Our minds and bodies are flooded by an intense wave of emotion, which can end up taking total control of our state of mind.  Do you ever look back at things you’ve done or said when flooded and thought “WHAT was I thinking???  Well it turns out, you may not have been thinking as well as you typically do!  We actually lose about 8 IQ points when flooded with anger.  When we’re in that state, it’s extraordinarily difficult to remain centered.  Thus, most of our words and actions are reactions, rather than responses.

So what do we do?  It’s very simple.  If you’re flooded, do not say or do anything.  If someone forces you to speak (for instance, you’re in an argument with your partner and they’re demanding a response), say “I’m not calm enough to talk about this right now”, or “I’m too angry to talk about this right now”.  Then, take a few moments to gather yourself.  Do some deep breathing, take a walk, distract yourself…whatever works for you.  Bring yourself back to a calm, cool, and collected state.  Once you’re there, you’ll be better prepared to respond in the way that you choose.

About the Author

Katie Fleming

Katie earned her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Northwestern University, and is currently a Crisis Therapist in Chicago. Her therapy interests include health and wellness, relationships, trauma, and crisis. Katie is also a therapist with a group practice in Arlington Heights. Katie is thrilled to be a part of Career Girl Network, helping to guide all Career Girls towards overall physical, emotional, and mental wellness. Katie is passionate about animal rescue, running, and yoga. She is the proud dog mom of Gulliver and Duke!