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Learning to Be Proactive So You Don’t Have to Be Reactive

Look at the word responsibility— “response-ability”— the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.
-Stephen Covey

Reactivity is the willful ignorance of a problem. When that ignorance is confronted with the truth, a person becomes defensive, rude, irrational, or argumentative. The reactive person will openly deny the problem, will change the subject, cast blame on others, or shut down. Why do people do this? How can people behave so illogically? The answer, simply put, is fear. People are afraid because facing a problem requires change. So, it’s easier to pretend like the problem isn’t there. The fear of change accompanied by the denial of a problem forces a person into a reactive way of thinking and behaving. And being in a reactive position comes with some serious disadvantages.

The Disadvantages of being Reactive

Ignoring a problem allows it to mutate into a worse problem. For example, couples, on average, tend to engage counseling services 7 years after a problem has been going on. Seven years! That’s a long time to live with a problem. Relationally speaking, that period of time allows resentment, bitterness and hurt to build up to a point where no solution will work. We make problems worse when we ignore them.

Let’s say, someone loves you enough to confront you. Instead of listening, you become reactive. You try to deny what they’re saying, you accuse them of projecting their problems on you, or you bring up all their problems to get yourself off the hot seat. Doing this will lead to serious personal damage, for example: you’ll lose respect from your community and you’ll become socially isolated.

Finally, all the time and energy you spend ignoring and denying the problem is time you could have spent working on the solution. I’ve heard many clients share deep regret for not seeking counseling earlier in their life. They are ashamed by how long they lived in denial, and how many years were wasted when they could have been enjoying their life. The discomfort of change is a small price to pay for living a life free of fear and reactivity. Don’t live a life of reactivity. Learn this hard lesson and become proactive.

Proactive

The proactive person respects themselves, their relationships, their families, their jobs and their communities enough to not waste time and resources when it comes to problems. If someone confronts them with a legitimate concern, they engage with what the person is saying. They don’t allow their ego to blind them to the truth. In other words, the proactive person is humble enough to consider they’re not perfect and may have weaknesses. Weaknesses they may not be able to see; therefore, the proactive person is open to the opinions of trusted friends who can see where they cannot. If you want to be a proactive person you need friends, family and a community in your life. You need the kind of people who will love you enough to say the hard things.

Stewardship

Proactive people are good stewards of what they have. They tend to their relationships, jobs, and mental health like gardeners tend to their gardens. This means you have to be observant. You have to be watchful for weeds creeping into your life. I know many couples who do maintenance sessions with a therapist once every year. They do this habitually not because of a crisis, but because they want to stay on the right track. They want to celebrate their strength and nip problems at the bud. This may seem odd to do, but think about it for a moment. You see your dentist every six months for a cleaning, right? Every year you visit the doctor for a flu shot? You take your car in for a maintenance check at the mechanic, so why don’t you do this with your relationships, struggles, or career goals? The maintenance way of thinking seems completely normal for our physical health, but when it comes to our mental or relational health, the idea seems bizarre. Why? Why do we distinguish between our physical health and our mental health? Why do we take our physical health so seriously, but ignore our mental, emotional and relational needs?

Ask for Help When You Need it

Proactive people realize they alone are not when battling against a problem. I’ve heard it said that it takes a village to raise child. Well, I think the same thing goes for tackling a mental health, relational or family problem. You need a village to help in times of crisis and struggle. You need other people to lend their expert advice, to give a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. So, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

Unfortunately, in our culture, people who access counseling, psychiatry and therapy services are associated with being “crazy”, and are viewed as weak, broken or damaged. And so, the people who need mental health services don’t access them because they are afraid of the negative associations. There is tremendous pressure to “fit in” and be viewed as “normal.” The sad reality is that these negative cultural associations are simply untrue. Here are a few facts from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to show how prevalent mental illness is among the US population:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—10 million, or 4.2%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.

More than likely you or someone you know (like a family member or friend) has been diagnosed or at one point has struggled with a mental health disorder. The truth is, mental illness, is in fact, normal. It is normal to struggle. The standard by which we judge others should not be if someone struggles, but if they choose to seek help; if they choose to overcome their issues by facing them. We ought to have compassion for those who struggle with mental illness because we really have compassion ourselves. It is possible that at some point you will struggle with a mental illness. At that point, would you want someone judging you or helping you? How would you want to be treated?

I’m going to get on my metaphoric soapbox here for a moment. I think proactive people feel compassion for themselves and for others. They know how to advocate for their own needs or the needs of others. Being an advocate doesn’t mean you have to give some organization your life-savings or become a lawyer. There are simple, small daily things you can do to help. The first is to not allow yourself to judge others based on their mental illness. This may be the hardest step of all. But when you see someone on the street acting odd, panhandling, in grubby clothes, or talking to themselves, ask yourself, what if that was my dad? What if that was my son? What if that was my friend? You wouldn’t mock them would you? No, you’d probably try to help them or at the very least, not judge them.

Secondly, when others are making critical and judgmental comments about another person based on their mental illness, be gently subversive by making the suggestion that those are people; people who have value; people who are struggling; people who have families, stories and are deserving of human decency. Third, change your language. Language shapes the way people think. So, if you refer to someone with a mental illness as “crazy”, “nut job”, “psycho”, “lunatic” it perpetuates negative cultural associations. However, if your language communicates compassion, understanding and respect, then those messages and associations are perpetuated. And slowly, those negative associations will change.

Seek Help Early

When a proactive person can humbly listen to the feedback of a trusted friend and admit they need outside help, they act quickly. They won’t settle for a life of denial. They seek help early. When you seek help early, you are giving yourself, your family, your marriage, your job and your own well-being a fighting chance. Otherwise, the damage only increases and the problem worsens. A problem is far easier to fix early in its life. However, if you ignore a problem, it gets bigger, meaner and tougher to fix.

Conclusion

Hopefully you are sufficiently convinced to become a proactive person. That isn’t to say it’s easy to become one. In fact, it’s not easy at all, but the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. Being proactive is the willingness to no longer live in fear. It is the desire to no longer have your life ruled by reactivity. So, reclaim your life, face your problems, ask for help, rely on the support of others, and don’t live in regret.