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Insight Blog | Reactivity

Reactivity presents itself in many ways. It feeds on its own energy to create its own reality. Even in subtle manifestations, reactivity is capable of stealing our true nature.

We lose ourselves to a false self when reactive. Our own inner wisdom lies patiently dormant, captive the moment we get hijacked. Reactivity causes us to “act again and again,” in a manner both familiar and limiting, yet there is potential for specific insight in the instant reactivity surfaces. Like a persistent friend, reactivity is seldom far from us. When we attend to reactivity as “friend,” we gain a powerful ally and teacher; for the value of reactivity lies in its precision.

The next time you catch yourself becoming reactive, address your reactivity as a friend. Then, acknowledge your friend as energy. Follow the path of energy to its root, the precise root cause of the reactivity. Root cause is available on the receptive and is our teacher, freeing us from repetitive reactions that obscure our light within.

How do you know you are about to be reactive? How might you most readily befriend your reactivity, inviting it to reveal your inner wisdom? Choice may seem elusive in the throes of reactivity. Yet our conscious choice to intercept and befriend reactivity allows us access to a deeper understanding of our true self.

Gerry’s insight this month, like many of her prior ones, lends itself to a wide variety of Enneagram-based blogs. This is a good dilemma to have, since it means there is something powerful in this insight. I could take the route of describing the common reactivity “triggers” for each type. Or, I could go the path of explaining how individuals of each type react when they go into reactivity. Or, I could try to illuminate the choice point for each type, the point at which we could each choose to go into reactivity or to go into an alternative response. Really, I could write at least five or six blogs just from this insight activity. That said, I’m going to take a slightly different approach, which is this: how to chose a completely different response from our common reactivity response. However, this alternative response needs to be a “curious alternative,” not a “common alternative.”

First, I want to explain how to choose a “curious alternative.” When we go into our reactivity as if we are on autopilot, there is always a point right before we go on automatic. The only way to stop oneself is to (a) know what triggers you into habitual reactivity (and the Enneagram offers great insight into these areas); (b) know how you react when triggered (this requires slowing down your own process through self-observation and noticing your patterns, though the Enneagram is very instructive in illuminating our patterns); (c) have a “curious alternative” in mind; and (d) “choose to use” this “curious alternative.” But how do we select the alternative response? Here’s what people typically do: they think that the opposite of what they normally do (their reactive response) will get them the opposite result, and assume this is a more positive result. However, choosing the opposite response rarely produces a more positive outcome. We get a different result, but it is not always a better one.

Here’s how to pick a “curious alternative.”

Step 1 | Do not select the exact opposite of your normal reactive behavior
Remember that it is fundamentally human to select the exact opposite of something; although this is a default position of the human mind, it is just as limiting as the original position. For example, what is the opposite of North? You might be thinking, Obviously, it is South. However, consider that South is only one opposite or alternative to North, although it is the most common one. But East, West, Southeast and so forth are also opposites, what I call “curious alternatives” to North. So think about an opposite, not the opposite of your normal reactive behavior.

Step 2 | Brainstorm multiple opposites of your normal behavior
If you are wondering why the exact opposite of your normal reactive behavior isn’t likely to create a far better result than your normal behavior, think about this: you’re in the shower and the water is way too hot. What do you do? Most people turn the water faucet way down toward the cold direction. Then what happens – the water is way too cold for you. Next, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to get the water temperature just right.

It’s the same with our reactive behavior. If we tend to get aggressive, we think we should be non-aggressive or passive instead. But this really isn’t any better. When we are aggressive, we assert our will on others. But when we are passive, others assert their will on us. Neither option is very productive.

When you have brainstormed multiple alternative “opposites,” you will likely discover that one or more of them (but not all of them) seem “curious” in the sense that the response is one you’ve never thought of before, or an idea that sounds like fun to try, or a reaction that you think might get you a really positive outcome.

Step 3 | Select one alternative behavior, the most “curious alternative”
Now have fun imagining yourself actually doing this. The more you imagine, the more likely it is that you will do it and do it with some ease.

Step 4 | Review and reflect on your “curious” behavioral shift
How hard was it? Did you enjoy it? What benefits came your way from doing it?

Now for enneatypes and “curious alternatives:”

Enneagram Ones
Enneagram Ones typically react physically and verbally when they don’t like something (or when they do like something, but this blog is about negative reactivity). They may reel backwards, in a subtle or obvious way, say something curt or judgmental, get angry (resentful, irritated), and tighten their bodies and facial muscles.
“Curious alternative” | The most obvious alternative that most Ones use when they want to not be so reactive is to control themselves more. After all, if they want to not show their reactivity, why not bear down on oneself? However, this simply causes them to go under-cover (although most people can “read” the reactivity anyway), and also hurt themselves by becoming even tighter than they already are naturally. The “curious alternative” would be this: rather than tighten and control, relax and let go. How? Well, each One needs to figure this out, but here are two ideas: (1) just think of something you love and enjoy and re-experience it as this will relax you; and (2) breathe deeply and smoothly. Breathing (unless you are hyper-ventilating) almost always relaxes the body, which in turn can relax the heart and mind.

Enneagram Twos
Enneagram Twos have many ways of being reactive: withdrawing, feeling sad, getting angry, becoming anxious, blaming oneself, blaming another, and more. Many of these reactions may be internally felt, but not necessarily externally expressed (or they might be, either in modulated form or full blast).
“Curious alternative” | The most obvious opposite, one that most Twos use, is to either express oneself fully (if the Two has withdrawn) or to keep it inside (if the Two feels he or she has been overly expressive). Neither work very well, since choosing to suddenly express oneself when so upset can lead to big interpersonal difficulties and self-recrimination (remember that Twos repress feelings so when they do come out, they come out very big) or keeping it all inside can lead to deep frustration, anger, and even illness. The “curious alternative” for Twos would be neither expressing the unexpressed nor repressing the expressed. How about going away and doing something pleasurable, fun, and engaging? A movie? A massage? A hike? A walk? This is called self-care.

Enneagram Threes
Enneagram Threes can be thought of as having reactions they don’t much like to show. Threes can show their reactivity through anger, anxiety, competitiveness, higher-than-normal levels of activity, bearing-down on work, and more.
“Curious alternative” | The most obvious opposite would be to do nothing (think of 3 moving to 9 and spacing out). This might bring some momentary relief (not a bad thing), but then what? Nothing really changes, except the Three alternates between over-reaction and under-reaction, hot and cold. The “curious alternative” would be something that is neither overly active nor overly passive. What might that be? Something receptive! What might that be? It could be getting a massage and neither talking nor falling asleep, but instead staying present to every stroke of the massage and feelings one’s body. Or it could be listening to some enjoyable music and really feeling it.

Enneagram Fours
Enneagram Fours are neither more nor less reactive than the rest of us, but they often show it more than some other enneatypes. Fours can be incessantly moody, angry, sad, withdrawn, aggressive, passive, competitive, or, in other words, constantly shifting their interior landscape and its external expression.
“Curious alternative” | The most obvious alternative reaction would be to control one’s emotional reactions. However, this is also a hot to cold movement, and cold just doesn’t work well for Fours. Inside the feelings ferment, and they can become highly withdrawn, angry and self-loathing. So what can they do instead? How about being more temperate, neither too hot nor too cold. It means being less extreme and more calm. When Fours are calmer, they actually become less extreme. So how does a Four become more calm? They have to get creative, and fill themselves with positives to offset the negatives within, the negatives they have too easily absorbed, like thirsty sponges. The need to create the same thirst for the positive: flowers, beauty, and feeling filled with ideas, people, and experiences that make them feel good. Just find out what these are.

Enneagram Fives
Enneagram Fives usually react by non-reacting, which is not the same as a lack of reactivity. They do this by disconnecting themselves from how they actually feel, from their bodies (physical sensations), and from engagement with others and their environments. This reactivity can lead them to severe isolation, a painful place to live one’s life.
“Curious alternative” | The most obvious alternative would be for Fives to move toward everything, instead of moving away from that which scares and drains them. This is like making a turnip become a pear, and it is not likely to work very well. Always moving toward something (if a Five were even willing and able to do it) is not much of an improvement over habitually moving away. And it certainly doesn’t work when the person moving toward something is disconnected from him- or herself because there is not very much of the person moving. So here’s a “curious alternative:” how about gently moving toward and then standing still and experiencing oneself: body first, then head, then heart!

Enneagram Sixes
Enneagram Sixes are one of the most reactive enneatypes. They react mentally with what ifs, they react emotionally with fright, and physically with actions of bravery or confrontation. And then they react with withdrawal, anger (oops, not allowed to feel that), and cynicism.
“Curious alternative” | Obviously, the alternative is…what? Sixes do so much in a continuous oppositional dialectic that as soon as they might consider the opposite and then do it, they are back to the original behavior. So what would be a “curious alternative” for a Six? How about using a “pause button,” just like on a video screen. Simply “pause” your reaction and have it later. This is a very “curious alternative,” one that actually puts you in charge of your choices and reactivity.

Enneagram Sevens
Enneagram Sevens are constantly reacting, primarily with joy and enthusiasm, but also with fear and anger. They are usually so energetic that it takes very little to activate their energetic field into reactivity.
“Curious alternative” | The most obvious alternative is to stand still and quiet one’s energy field. This might be very nice (and something that we could all benefit from doing), but this option could deaden the bubbly life-force of most Sevens. As such, it could feel like a “near death,” and this is way too scary. How about the “curious alternative” of savoring the exquisiteness of a positive moment, appreciating its full glory rather than tasting it for only a moment and then moving on quickly. This could be a yummy alternative.

Enneagram Eights
Enneagram Eights can get instantaneously reactive and in a big way, with a booming voice, vast surges of intense anger, and an unstoppable impulse to take total charge of everything.
“Curious alternative” | The most obvious alternative, the direct opposite, would be to stop, modulate, and control oneself. Then what would happen? Most likely, if they could do this at all, Eights would get physically sick. And a sick Eight is usually an Eight who goes into denial about how weak he or she feels, and this is an unproductive and even sad place to be. But then, there is a “curious alternative,” one in which the Eight can choose to laugh instead of control, to smile and receive instead of having to be the strong one. This is the place of powerful receptivity, where there is no forward movement but also no submergence and control of self.

Enneagram Nines
Enneagram Nines become highly reactive in a passive way. Have you ever tried to literally or figuratively move a Nine? Have you ever really gotten them to do something they did not want to do? But Nines are also reactive in a non-reacting way. They are not disconnected from their feelings in the same way that Fives are, but they are often not deeply or clearly in-touch with the intensity of their feelings as they simmer, stew and sauté beneath the surface.
“Curious alternative” | The obvious alternative would be to become fully charged, fully expressive, intense, and assertive. It is almost impossible to imagine anyone doing this for any length of time, and would it even be desirable? Minimally, burnout would ensue. And how many relationships could survive this full-throttle intensity? A “curious alternative” might be in order. Nines, because they can consider so many perspectives, may come up with a better idea, but here’s one: how about breathing into your entire body at the moment passive-resistance strikes. The breath brings more life force into play, and from there, the body knows exactly what alternative behavior.

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