The Choice No One Can Take Away

When we face difficult times, it’s easy to feel helpless. The tough events which happen to us are so often not what we’d choose to happen, and leave us feeling stuck, out of control, and left to react. I don’t know about you, but when things aren’t going my way, I don’t always react in the best light. Yet, while circumstances are at times dictated for us, robbing us of freedoms we are used to — we do have a choice over one thing, despite the circumstances: how we’ll behave in the middle of it all.

Behavioral self-control is a competency of emotional intelligence, and can be defined as simply keeping our emotions, impulses, and actions in check…especially the ones which are disruptive, hurtful (to ourselves and others), and damaging.

People who are good at managing their behaviors — even in the midst of tough times — notice their emotions, often before they feel them. Sound impossible? It’s not. They’ve simply learned to read the warning flags their brains send to their bodies when, say, stressors come to call. Think about the last time you felt very upset, or, say, worried. How did it show up in your body? Did you get a headache? Sick to your stomach? Flushed? Dry mouth? Shaky? Learning to recognize your bodily symptoms of oncoming stress can help you prepare for it, so, instead of simply reacting, you can choose how you WANT to act. Take a moment to note your own stress signals and where/how they show up in your body.

Another characteristic of those with strong behavior self-control is that they are able to stay composed and unflappable in trying moments. By restraining negative reactions, which, left unchecked can make a tough situation tougher, they are able to remain positive during tough times. It’s so easy to engage in negative, reactive behaviors — damaging self-talk, badmouthing others, overuse of food/alcohol/etc. — when things aren’t going our way. What’s your vice when you are at odds with others and/or the world? Notice it, and spend a little time noting how well it is serving you. Though hurtful behaviors may seem to bring some relief or satisfaction in the moment, they often don’t provide many solutions for the long run. So take pause, and ask yourself, “What are my reactive behaviors, and do they truly help or make things worse?”

Something I find admirable about those with strong behavioral self-control is that when they are faced with hostility, opposition, or aggressive confrontations, they are able to remain cool, calm, and collected. Just because someone else is acting poorly doesn’t mean they have to, too. They are able to choose to stay focused so they can think and reason clearly, restraining the tendency toward agitated reactions which escalate things. This includes keeping their mouth shut until they can cool down, something I strive to do more often!

Those who struggle with behavioral self-control instead, react impulsively. They don’t resist temptations and give in easily when pushed or provoked. They are often quick to anger, defensive, and go to extremes when they are faced with conflict and stress. Sometimes this appears as negative self-talk, such as, “This always happens to me”, and “I always mess up!”, etc., but often comes out as hurtful behavior toward others — saying and doing things which cause harm, whether physically or emotionally. 

Developing self-awareness is a first step in building more behavioral self-control. Notice the moments when you tend to “lose it”, and make a list of the things which trigger your bad behaviors. Maybe it’s when you turn on the news, or when you have a conversation with that one certain person, or when you hear of yet another change you’re expected to ‘roll’ with. Look at each trigger and think about a few ways which you could act differently — more constructively —  than your current go-to reaction. For example, if you get agitated when watching a particular news program, notice which emotions you are feeling, and name them. Then notice which thoughts follow closely on the heels of those emotions (e.g., “I hate that leader — he is an idiot!”). From your thoughts stem your reactions. If your reactive  behavior is to badmouth a particular leader on your social media feed, notice how you feel when you do that. Then, take an honest audit on what damage that behavior may cause. For example, you may discover you are losing friends left and right (no pun intended), that no one follows you online anymore, nor do they want to chat or hang out with you as a result — and you would like it if they did. This could be an indicator that the badmouthing others is not working so well for you. What is an alternate reaction you could choose — a better way of responding to a news report which upsets you? Jot these strategies down so you’re prepared next time your trigger button is pushed — because it will be. How might you feel if you reacted that way? What alternate outcomes might that behavior bring about?  The thought is that the next time you are triggered, you’ll be ready with a new, more beneficial action to try.

In heated moments, taking an emotional audit is a simple exercise you can do on your own, or with a group you work closely with, or with a close friend or significant other.  Here’s how it works:  When you feel triggered, practice the pause. Literally — count to ten, twenty, thirty, to put a little time and space between the stimulus and your response. Then, before you react, ask yourself and answer these questions:

1-What am I feeling?

2-What am I thinking as a result of these feelings?

3-What do I want to happen in this moment (what would be an ideal outcome)?

4-What am I doing to sabotage this outcome?

5-What do I need to do or say right now to get the outcome I want?

While we can’t always control our circumstances, we can choose how we’ll act. That’s a choice that no one can take away. With practice, and yes, it takes practice, we can begin to carve out the path we want to take in the new year — not in trying to control things which are out of our control (which, interestingly, causes more stress than anything!), but by controlling what is IN our control — our behavior.

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