The Art of Not Reacting

When I perceived a customer being rude to me at work, I used to immediately rant to my co-workers about the alleged wrongdoer. “All I asked them was ‘how’s your day?’ and they gave me such an annoyed look and just replied, ‘Coffee.’ Sorry to bother you by doing my job at the restaurant you just voluntarily walked into!” Sometimes, the customer continued to be rude, and it was a long saga of dealing with them time and time again throughout their dining experience. Other times, though–and what turned out to be most times–, really nothing else “bad” would happen that would justify venting about; maybe the customer would be short with me again, but I’d be foolish to expect–at this point–that every single person in the world is over the top with niceties, and to continue to get bent out of shape over meaningless interactions.

As I sort of grew up at my job, I began to work on dealing with the people by dealing with myself. Growing up, I was pretty shy and so interacting with strangers wasn’t something I was well-trained with. So, as I began to understand that while I can’t change other people for the better, I can change myself for the better.

One of the things I began to work on was something I came to refer to as the Art of Not Reacting– to feel but not react to the bad stuff.

The Art of Not Reacting involves being able to detach yourself from situations that are not going to benefit you, and compose yourself by feeling your emotion but not fueling it or reacting to it. It’s taking a moment to think about how you feel without immediately reacting to your first emotion. Let me flesh this out a little:

I am a waitress, and I am at work. The restaurant is full, the kitchen is swamped, the serving staff is bustling. Throughout the night, I have been receiving smaller tips than I’d like, but I do not complain about it out loud; instead, when I see that small tip left behind, I feel the frustration, and I acknowledge and note it, but I do not react. I distance myself from the heat of the moment and realize that although I am frustrated by this small tip, my frustration stems from a place much more complicated and much messier than this small tip which triggered the feeling, so I don’t fuel the frustration. I let the thought go and steady myself in the next “now” I have. Later, in the middle of a second wave of business, the new host asks me a dumb question, and although I feel annoyed, and I let that annoyance flare for a moment in me, I do not react to it; instead of snapping at her and saying something rude, I take a breath and center myself and answer her question best I can. I understand that if I was rude to her, later that night when things were calm again and I felt better, I would look back and feel embarrassed by how I treated her, when I was annoyed with someone who genuinely asked my help, annoyed merely because of my own emotional shortcomings.

(If you have read The Four Agreements, “Be impeccable with your word” elaborates on the importance of being mindful of what you speak out loud.)

By feeling but not reacting, you’re taking responsibility for your emotions and coping with them in a productive way. How many times have you been angry and thrown what was in your hand, only to cause more damage than would have ensued had you kept a level head? Some people think that stifling your anger is unhealthy, that it can cause pent up aggression; I disagree. Of course, physical exercise and outdoor activity are crucial to well-rounded health–but not violence. Also, understanding and dealing with your anger in an honest and productive way is NOT the same as choking it back and bottling it up. When you feel anger, let yourself feel that anger for just a moment inside you, then distance yourself from the situation so that you can understand the reason behind your anger. Many times, the reasons are unflattering on our behalf, but we are only human, and understanding our emotions can better help us let go of our negative feelings that we don’t have to hold on to or let sabotage our future or our relationships.

As I said, we are all only human, so negative emotions are inevitable. Anger, frustration, jealousy, annoyance, vengeance, pettiness, and so on, will come naturally because of how we were raised in this world and because we are feeling creatures. Feel those fiery emotions, but do not react. Think about how much you are prompted to react every day: “How did you like this post? Click happy face or sad face.” “You ‘liked’ Janelle’s Facebook post!” “Eminem is a better rapper than MGK, prove me wrong.” Opinions are floating everywhere, polluting every facet of social media and clouding our understanding. People are constantly posting about what they like, what they believe is objectively true, how other people should feel, how other people should look like, and on and on. Sometimes we don’t need to share our opinions, though. Sometimes we just need to listen, or keep our opinions to ourselves because we know better. If I know something or feel something, I don’t have to react about it out loud. You can feel something in your mind and in your heart and deal with it there. Do that for yourself, take that special moment of personal self-understanding. Let go of other people’s opinions which influence us in even the most unconscious ways.

That’s why it’s an art of not reacting. It’s not easy. Some people will say, “Oh, so I should become a door mat? I should let people walk all over me and not say anything?” That’s not what this is about. Always feel and not react before you take your next action, whatever that next action be– maybe you feel and not react, and then speak up to a person, “Excuse me, but you should reconsider how you treat others.” The art of not reacting focuses on you and how you can individually improve your own life by changing the way you deal with a lot of very inevitable things in your life– the inevitability of rude and unpleasant people, the inevitability of things going wrong, the inevitability of “shit happens.” Annoying things are bound to happen and we can’t change that; instead, we can change our perspective and our practices, practices that will lead to a happier soul because they don’t fixate on petty human affairs; they fixate on the vibrance of life and emotion and the beauty of healing and growing. We have the ability to drive ourselves mad if we choose to look at life from a jaded perspective, but if we focus on love and growth, we’ll find ourselves closer to happiness.

When a customer is rude to me, I don’t feel that I need to launch a campaign about how a horrible injustice has been committed to me. When people are rude, hateful, or nasty to others, it is a sign that their soul is suffering and that they have emotional work to do; when people are hateful, it is because they are emotionally irresponsible. So when a customer is rude to me, I understand that there is trouble in their heart and while I feel slight upset, I do not react, and I treat the customer as normal. Maybe that means the way they’re speaking to me is condescending and I am being a pushover or a door mat, but I still recognize that they have a heart and being rude to them will only make the situation worse; it is not productive to mistreat someone because you felt they mistreated you. (When I say this, I’m thinking of microaggressions, which we all have become very sensitive to.) I will never choose to engage with the unpleasant customer outside of my duties as a waitress, but I won’t “punish” them in any way.

And in situations where it is myself making me angry, for example if I accidentally spill something, I don’t throw a fit and moan about how much things suck; I feel the anger bubble and then tell myself what I know to be true–things are liable to suck when I lose touch with my emotions, and I may end up breaking something else in frustration or saying something I’ll regret or realize I didn’t mean later, but if I hold my tongue and breathe and decide to focus on solutions, I have already begun solving my problem and working productively with my emotions.

This all is a practice of mindful living and mindful thinking, and it takes a lot of self-discipline and self-understanding. I am not perfect and while these are the goals I work towards, I still sometimes trip up on following through with this. But taking time to understand your emotions is a necessity as an adult–everybody should strive to be in tune with their feelings; it’s a part of being emotionally mature. Emotional immaturity is seen when people feel prejudice towards others, when people feel entitled and lash out when they feel “wronged”, when people fail to consider other perspectives, and in many, many, more instances. I dream of a world where people work to grow themselves as individuals and cooperate within a larger community for the progress of the society. It feels great to have an understanding for your peers, even if they are different from you. Understanding each other is an act of love.

So, hopefully, you take a moment after reading this to feel. Just sit there, pretend you’re reading another sentence or two, and just feel. Don’t react; just breathe. Be quiet. Now go forward, with more clarity, with an inward-facing magnifying glass, and be a better, more emotionally productive, healing version of yourself.


If you are interested in this topic, you can click here to read more posts where I discuss mindful thinking, self-love, and improving perspective.

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