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Mastering Emotional Intelligence: Overcoming Reactivity and Moving Toward Mindful Responses

Updated: Jun 23

Only if you realize you are responsible, do you have the freedom to create yourself the way you want to be, not as a reaction to the situations in which you exist. Reactivity is enslavement. Responsibility is freedom. ~Sadhgu

While our attachment system activates the need for another in our lives, the presence of that another can activate trauma. When intimacy is a trauma trigger, old defensive/protective stances show up and they show up automatically (i.e. without our choosing).

Reactivity is a self-protective reflex, which is mighty useful in the face of an emergency because we need to act as quickly as possible.

Relational triggers can feel like an emergency, but while they may stir up a sense of immediate danger, they represent an emotional flashback rather than point to actual danger. A flashback is an embodied memory of an old hurt. When it comes to being triggered, we feel the sense of immediate danger, but rarely are we actually in danger.

Moving out of reactivity is truly about self-regulation. What we're trying to do is promote inner safety, so that we can be present enough to acknowledge the pain that has just been triggered and so that we can think about how to tend to that pain.

Reactivity is what happens when we feel at the mercy of something that possesses us, while the non-reactivity is about self-possession. We move from not being the agents of our own well-being to having full agency. This, in and of itself, is a major healing property!

3 benefits of moving out reactivity:

  1. Restoring the ability to exercise agency and choice (pre-frontal cortex)

  2. Regaining a sense of freedom, aliveness and well-being

  3. Restoring safety while living and loving from an open heart


Small steps make up big shifts.

Before we talk about all the hows, let me begin by saying that learning to be non-reactive takes time. Small changes may not be noticeable and one must move on what at times feels like pure faith, but let me assure you that all the small steps over time create shifts that are profound.

When we take responsibility for what hurts, we are free to respond in ways that offer the care that is most needed. Over time, our inner agency is freed up to take action that is both protective and caring.

So what helps us move from reactivity into responsiveness?

The number one rule is that safety is prioritized. Not my safety or yours. Not yours or someone else's. Every one's. We don’t need to compete to see whose safety matters more. We honor safety as a general birthright and as an important life resource we all require.

When we realize that we are allies on each other's healing journeys, we are naturally likely to take a more active engaged role.

We become response-able not only to ourselves, but to others who too are on the healing journey of their own.

Things to remember/consider:

1. Historical injuries that have been unhealed/un-repaired will continue to hurt. When we disturb the old injury, we're not to blame and yet the other is hurt. We are instrumental in each other's healing process. When we see another's defensiveness or reactivity, it can be helpful to ask, Have I just said or done something that has made you close off/upset? Remember that underneath the reactivity there is fear and there is hurt.

2. The awareness of what hurts/traumas/attachment wounds lessens reactivity.

3. Closeness/intimacy/connection is the natural outcome of safety. Repair increases trust and trust leads to safety. When we're invited into the repair process, we hold the key and that key is the opportunity to help the other experience more safety. How we respond matters.


How to communicate a grievance/frustration in a way that decreases reactivity and promotes safety:

-How a grievance is conveyed matters: You just stepped on my toe. NOT: You always do that, you’re so inconsiderate, you don’t care, you want to hurt me- stay with the specific grievance, do not generalize or go historic. Go underneath the frustration. Underneath there is an ask/a desire/a need/a wish. Use I-statements. The use of you-statements tends to make the other tense and hence, raises defensiveness/reactivity.

-How a grievance is received: I hear you*. NOT: shame-filled response (I'm a horrible person, I always do this) or a collapse into apologizing before understanding what was hurtful to the other person

*It helps to mirror what we hear when another expresses a frustration or has an ask. Mirroring circumvents the reactivity and creates a very important pause, which engages the prefrontal cortex of our brain, needed for safe communication. For example, I hear you are frustrated when I...Can you tell me more? or I hear you'd like me to be more helpful around the house. How can I help you more?

3 small steps to practice over time:

So now, once again, let's return to the small steps that, if practiced routinely, will lead to bigger shifts in decreasing reactivity:

Mirror, mirror, mirror: Whenever another comes to us wanting to share a frustration/a feeling/a want, mirroring the statement first (example: What I hear you say is....) allows us to instantaneously side-step the reflexive closing off. It's as if just making the statement of "I hear you" offers the space around the heart space that wants to collapse for the fear that something terrible is about to happen.

Indicating that something hurts WITHOUT needing to fix it or have it fixed: Saying something like, Ouch, out loud disrupts the reactive loop and introduces something new, a pause, an acknowledgement of pain. Reactivity arises when the brain decides there is no time to think, there is only time to act and most of the time in relationships, that simply isn't true.

Adhere to a stable structure for communicating hard things: When we try new things, changing too many ingredients is destabilizing. Too many changes or too many moving parts makes for a flimsy container and there HAS to be a sturdy and stable container to hold new practices. In Imago relational approach the container that holds difficult conversations is a formal dialogue process where partners take turns hearing one another fully and learning how to give each other the gift of full presence.


For those of you who have never heard of Imago, here's a little video of Harville and Helen speaking about the process.

The Imago Dialogue
Download • 117KB

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