Reducing Stress: Rate Your Reactivity

By Dr. Gary Sweeten

Feelings and behavior are not a direct result of another’s behavior. My feelings are the result of what the others’ behavior means to me. If my wife Karen comes home from work and fails to speak to me, I could respond with anxiety, hurt, and some anger. Or, I could respond with sympathy. What makes the difference? The difference in my feeling state is directly related to my perception of what her behavior means.

If I perceive that Karen is so worn out after work that she needs some peace and quiet before she will have enough energy to even speak, I will have empathy. However, if I perceive that Karen is mad and rejecting me, I will feel upset. Note that Karen does not make me feel mad, sad, or glad. My feelings are actually the result of my own thoughts.

I could say: “You make me so mad when you come home from work and don’t even say a word. What is wrong with you? Why are you so cruel to me?” This is an illogical statement that gives my wife power over my thoughts and feelings. In fact, whenever I use a You statement to describe my feelings, I am giving power to others. Since I do not like to give power over my thoughts and feelings to others, I try to remember to use I statements. Example: “Karen, it doesn’t feel good when you come in the house without speaking. I wonder if I have done something wrong.”

Family members who overreact emotionally to unimportant events are probably so close to them that they feel into what they are saying. A strong reaction means that my mind, emotions and body automatically go into high gear when the person to whom I am connected says something. Some people have stronger emotional reactions than the activity warrants. A friend’s young daughter recently went into an angry funk when her brother said he wanted to sit next to me rather than next to her. She pouted, shouted, and acted very hurt. Her reactivity was very high even though the event that she reacted to was not a big deal.

Scale of Reactivity

Perfect Peace ——————————————- High Anxiety/Reactivity


If I go into a raging attack when Karen does not speak as soon as she comes home, it is obvious that I have over reacted. Karen’s behavior might be at most level two on a ten-point scale, but my emotional reaction to her was an eight at least.

Responding at the same level of the event indicates more internal peace. I am feeling much less anxiety. Responding means I have perceived the events realistically and am in control my feelings. My mental and emotional faculties correlated closely with reality. I do not overreact, but respond with emotions that are appropriate to the situation.

When people are emotionally distant to a person, they do not over react to their behavior. When I am at peace with myself, I do not give other people’s behavior power over my feelings, no matter what they say to me. However, when I love and respect another person, I may give them too much power over my reactions. Every remark can cause me to react.

  • Reactions: Emotional states that are more intense than the situation warrants.
  • Responses: Emotional and behavioral actions in line with the facts.

In both cases we need to interact with I statements rather than You statements because we choose to feel our feelings. No one else is causing me to feel this way. (Note: My immediate feelings may be automatic, but over time I can change them. Start by better understanding your level of reactivity to different situations here.)

Dig Deeper: How to Be Me in My Family Tree, By Dr. Gary Sweeten


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