One of the most common obstacles to our personal growth is our reactions to others. Janet grew up in a demanding, overbearing home. The most common statements she heard were, “You can’t do that.” “I won’t allow you to do that.” “You are not allowed to be with those people.”
She heard it often enough that a reaction was born in her soul. Anytime she heard “you can’t” or “I won’t allow it,” resistance rose up inside her so fast that she seemed powerless to evaluate her response. When her father told her, “I will not allow you to marry that man,” she grew instantly stubborn. Her heart defiantly insisted, “Nobody can tell me what I can and cannot do. I will marry whoever I want.”
The breakup of her marriage because of her husband’s alcoholism was devastating, especially because she had to admit that her father was right. In her recovery, she had to find a better way to respond to others than to react to these hurtful triggers that were lodged in her heart.
Fighting Chaos With Chaos
Janet’s circumstances may be different than yours, but her struggle is common. We are all tempted to fight chaos with chaos. Someone says something untrue about us and we rush to defend ourselves, as if our overreaction will erase their deception. Someone gets angry with us for no reason and we yell back, as if turning up the volume in our voice will bring them to their senses. Someone blames you for something they did wrong, and you either beg for their forgiveness or blame someone else.
Why do we act like this? It is primarily to stay connected to the people we know. None of us likes to be hurt, but we like being lonely even less. Without intentional focus, we will choose messiness over loneliness.
Growth Through Faith
Peter presents another way in 2 Peter 1:5-8. The apostle challenges us all to take a deliberate approach to our personal growth that moves us forward from one character trait to another. Instead of reacting to the inconsistencies in those around us, we have the opportunity to respond in a way that makes us stronger with each decision.
One of the key traits in this list is self-control. When applied to our reactions to others, it translates to a simple, strategic question: “What type of person do I want to be in this situation?” Janet started asking herself, “When others tell me what to do in a demanding way, how do I want to respond? What type of person do I want to be when others are trying to control my behavior?”
If you asked her today, “How can I turn my reactions into responses?” she would tell you:
- Identify the actions of others you are most prone to react to. Janet boldly admitted she would grow instantly stubborn any time someone told her she couldn’t do something. An irresistible need would surface to do exactly what she was told she could not do. Identifying this trigger helped Janet recognize when she needed to exercise self-control.
- Choose a response from 2 Peter 1:5-8 instead of reacting. Janet asked herself, “What would I rather do than grow instantly stubborn?” She decided goodness was the place to start. She started asking, “How can I respond in a way that is good? What would be good for me, good for my family and good for the person who is trying to give me sincere (although demanding) advice?” As she asked these questions, she concluded that not responding right away and waiting three days before she made a decision would calm her down enough to choose a healthier course of action.
- Practice the response you would like to have. Identifying the response she wanted didn’t automatically make it happen. She had to deliberately practice. When she wanted to stubbornly react, she would tell herself, “Don’t say a thing.” She then would enter an appointment on her calendar for three days in the future to work through her response.
It didn’t change instantly, but Janet was pleased the day she heard herself say, “Is there a good reason you are telling me I can’t do this?” Rather than defiantly thinking, “No one tells me what to do!” she was able to respond in a calm yet assertive way. The next time you want to react defensively, stop and ask yourself, “What type of person do I want to be?”
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