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During the week of August 4th 2008, a man in Milwaukee loaded his shotgun and shot his lawn mower because it wouldn’t start. (See, also, 2021 Tesla incident.)

For the fellow in Milwaukee, it was about his lawn mower. What about the rest of us? What brings us to, or close to, the breaking point, where we want to shoot something, or smash it, or kick the stuffing out of it?

How to you react to things like a malfunctioning stapler, a computer hardware/software or app glitch, washing machine breakdown, Smartphone issue, an elevator door that takes forever to close, coffee that brews too slowly, a red light, an ATM that’s out of cash…? I’m thinking you can come up with your own list of irritants in a very short time.

Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” So, let’s take the liberty of stretching this thought a bit and paraphrase, “Everything that irritates us about inanimate objects can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” How so?

First, consider two definitions:

Inanimate – 1: not animate: a: not endowed with life or spirit; b: lacking consciousness or anthropomorphism; described or thought of as having human attributes 2: ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman things

So, what’s at play here? Again paraphrasing (this time Eleanor Roosevelt), “Nothing can make us feel what we don’t want to feel.” This bears repeating. Nothing can make us feel what we don’t want to feel.

While blaming and feeling the victim has become an art form in our Western culture, this fact remains a fact. Nothing can make us feel what we don’t want to feel.

So, reflecting on our definitions:

When walking through Home Depot and coming upon a lawn mower, my sense is you wouldn’t rush over to beat it senseless. When coming upon the words “fax machine” in a dictionary, my sense is you don’t immediately go into a tirade and tear the dictionary to shreds. Inanimate objects. No life, no consciousness; just objects, things.

When we become reactive, what’s most often operating is our need for the world to operate exactly as we want it to operate – i.e. perfectly. We want/need the security of being in control. When something takes us out of our comfort zone, when something happens that makes us feel or believe we’re not in control, then we (consciously or unconsciously) become reactive. Reacting means to “do without thinking,” to become emotional.

Lest you begin to think you’re “justified” in becoming angry, frustrated, emotional or irrational and grab on to the notion that some object caused your reaction, consider this.

The “stimulus” or trigger of your reactivity is possibly, yes, an object, event, circumstance (even an animate being, e.g. a human) or event outside of you. However, the “cause” of your reactivity is inside you. It is all about you. Feeling the victim, feeling out of control or put upon – whatever/however you feel, – you are responsible for your emotions and for your reactivity. You. Nothing, or no one “out there.”

It’s helpful, too, to remember what Shakespeare said, “An event is neither good nor bad; only thinking makes it so.”

Emotions don’t come from nowhere. They bubble up from inside. Our reactivity begins the instant we tell ourselves a story about an event and this is where the inanimate object become animate as we ascribe anthropomorphic/human qualities to it. “It’s doing that to me!” We, consciously or unconsciously, take it personally. We sometimes even go so far to have an actual conversation with the object.

We create a story in which we allow the lawn mower, the fax machine or the elevator door to take on actual qualities and a personality that are “doing something to me” – it’s making me uncomfortable; it’s ruining my day, it’s making me late, it’s making me unhappy and it’s interfering with my life and my need for control or security in some way, shape or form.

Somehow, this object has acquired all these personality qualities and intentionality that are out to get me and make my life miserable.

We experience the event, we are catapulted out of our comfort zone and we create a story – all happening sometimes in a nano-second. Our adrenaline begins to flow, energy pours into our head, anger-based chemicals flow from the brain, emotions and physiological discomfort take over our body and, well, we load the shotgun and blast the lawn mower to pieces, or become verbally violent and explode.

Let’s review the Jung paraphrase: “Everything that irritates us about inanimate objects can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

When the event occurs and I feel myself becoming reactive, two immediate questions to ask myself are: “So what’s going on with me, right here and right now?” and, “How am I feeling?” See a list of feelings here.

It’s critical to be able to name what you’re feeling. If you can’t name it, then you can’t work with it. So in addition to reacting with “I’m angry,” you’ll gain much more insight into your story if you can say, for example, “I’m feeling all alone (or afraid, angry, ashamed, cheated, confused, controlled, trapped, worried, put upon . . . )

Naming your emotions in this way and exploring why you feel the way you do, will give you a greater understanding of the historical nature of your reactivity and support you to see what’s really underneath your reactivity. You’ll see how your immediate reactivity is not about “now” even though right now you think it is. It’s deeper.

When you understand the nature of your reactivity (and your experience of loss of control), you’ll be better able to witness an event for what it is – an objective event – without needing to attach your history to it and become reactive (that was then; this is now…and there’s no connection). There is a 99.9% chance that what you’re feeling in the present moment is not a “one-off.” There’s a good chance you’ve experienced this same feeling, albeit in different circumstances, before. The reactive feeling that comes with a sense of loss of control is most likely an old feeling, just leaking out again in the current circumstance.

With a deeper, patient and curious exploration and understanding of who you are and how you are in this moment, and how it relates to earlier childhood experiences when you sensed a loss of control, you’ll discover and be able to call upon your internal, heart-felt (and not ego-reactive) essential qualities such as: courage, strength, wisdom, compassion, clarity, steadfastness, discipline, patience and will that can support you to cope with life’s misadventures without getting knocked out of the box or becoming reactive. Like I’ve said in previous posts, you will be able to stop “futurizing your past.”

With this deeper, conscious and sincere exploration, we develop the capacity to respond to events – with considered reflection and contemplation – rather than with knee-jerk reactivity.

We can get clues about our unconscious programming if we observe our reactions, responses, feelings and thoughts about events (and other people). Until or unless we take the time to look inside and explore the nature of our reactivity, life will continue to give us a series of events in which we play the victim and martyr and remain reactive.

Asking yourself, for example, “How do I judge or stereotype events (or people)?” “What pushes my buttons?” “What makes me angry or fearful or sad?” “Do I need the world to operate perfectly?” etc., will support you to see what it is that you need to work on “inside” you that attracts events that continually push your buttons.

If you didn’t have deeper (often unconscious) beliefs, expectations, assumptions, and preconceptions about the circumstances and events that trigger you reactivity, then, pure and simple, you probably wouldn’t react the way you do.

So when outer events spark a reaction, we need to look inside to explore what’s going on. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “an event is neither good nor bad; only thinking makes it so.”

So, finally, it’s never about the lawn mower – ever.

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • What negative experiences or events do you consistently or frequently encounter? Why do you think that is?
  • What do you not know about yourself (e.g., your history, memory and past experience) that might be leaking out now in a negative way?
  • Who can help you to explore and consider more clearly what you need to discover and see about yourself?
  • Do you consider yourself to be a “blamer?” (victim, martyr…)? Would your colleagues, family, and friends agree with you?
  • What are your “lawn mowers”? How do you react to it/them? Are these  one-offs, or patterns of reactivity?
  • What are you like when you become reactive? What would others say?
  • Have you ever explored the sources of your reactivity?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how positive are you, generally? What would others say about you? Would you feel comfortable asking some of these other folks?
  • What one or two baby steps can you take in the next week or two to become less reactive and more responsive to (one of) your “lawn mower(s)”?
  • What was feeling out of control like for you when you were growing up?
  • Do you consider yourself to be a perfectionist? If so, what were your earliest childhood experiences that pointed you in this direction? Over the course of your life, where has being a perfectionist put you on a 1-10 continuum of happy…unhappy (angry, frustrated, sad, confused…)?

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(c) 2022, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful.
Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, www.truenorthpartnering.com or pvajda(at)truenorthpartnering.com
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