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Reactive vs. Ground Desires

When clients tell me they are falling apart, I often say “Great!” If we’re falling apart, we have the opportunity to put ourselves back together in a new and better way. Difficult times give us the opportunity to recreate our lives. If we find ourselves in this place, it is because there is some significant way that our lives aren’t working, or at least as well as they could be. Sometimes we seem to need dramatic events, like divorce or separation, to propel us into a better place.

I’m not suggesting that we should feel happy about how difficult our lives are. Rather, I am suggesting that we have two choices. We can see ourselves as victims, or we can see ourselves as having an opportunity. Which do you choose?

What do we want to create?

We have the opportunity right now to start creating a better, more fulfilling life for ourselves and our children. In order to create the life we want to have, it is imperative that we know what we’re trying to create. If we don’t know what we are aiming toward, it is unlikely that we will get there. It would be like deciding that we want to go on a road trip to a beautiful destination but not really being clear about what the destination is, not taking a road map or a GPS and just trusting that we are going to get there if we keep driving along. We might decide to turn right or left because that’s what all the other people are doing or because one road looks more appealing or easier in the moment. Many people live their lives like this, bumbling along with no real destination in mind.

Step one in this journey is clearly defining what we want. Because we are all different, we want different things, but there are some things everyone wants. Most of us want to be happy and feel a sense of fulfillment in our lives. We want to feel as though our lives have some value and are enjoyable. As parents, the happiness and success of our children is generally closely tied to our own happiness. It is difficult to feel happy or fulfilled if our children are suffering or miserable.

When we think about happiness, we tend to think about the circumstances that will make us happy. For instance, we may believe that if we have a good spouse, a good job and two kids, we will be happy. But we also know that getting the things we want doesn’t automatically guarantee happiness. Happiness is about how we feel, regardless of the circumstances. We can be very happy sharing a meal of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with our children. We can be very unhappy having a meal at a gourmet restaurant. We can be happy walking our children to school on a rainy day, and we can be unhappy at Disneyland on a beautiful day. Happiness often has little to do with what we have and what we are doing, and everything to do with our state of mind.

Our children’s states of mind largely mirror our own. We are the most important role models in their lives. If we are often in states of fear, resentment, anger and frustration, our children will “learn” these states from us. Therefore, if we want our children to be happy and stable, our best bet is to be happy ourselves. “The most important thing that parents need to understand is that the brain of their child will become exactly what the child was exposed to,” states Bruce Perry, child psychiatrist and internationally recognized authority on childhood trauma, in an interview with Patricia Gras on “Living Smart.” “If you want your child to be kind then you have to be kind to the child. If you want your child to be good at self-regulation and not lose their temper, you have to not lose your temper….It’s really important for parents to understand that their internal state, whether it’s calm or whether it’s alert engagement or whether it’s frustration and anger, whether it’s sadness or depression, the baby [child] absorbs these internal states.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vak-iDwZJY8).

I am not suggesting that we pretend we’re happy or that we are damaging our child if we aren’t happy all the time. I am suggesting that if we cultivate happiness, or peacefulness, or calm, we will help our children cultivate those qualities. In divorced co-parenting situations, we often get upset and wrapped up in worrying about certain things, such as how much time our child is spending with us, or if we will have enough money, or what our ex, or our ex’s partner, is saying about us. These things matter little when it comes to the ultimate happiness and success of our children. What matters most is our state of mind.

Emotional Reactivity

The stress of conflicted co-parenting situations tends to propel us into emotional reactivity— into states where we act predominantly out of negative emotions and not out of reason, rationality, logic or, most importantly, love. When we are angry, frustrated, anxious, scared or full of resentment, we rarely work toward what we really want. We can’t see the big picture or the future, or be wise about what we are trying to create. In emotionally reactive states, we are overcome by an uncomfortable level of distress that compels us to want to take action RIGHT NOW. We focus all of our energy on the event that triggered our emotional response and lose the ability to contemplate the impact of our actions on others or on future events. We become completely single-minded.

Emotional reactions are necessary and even lifesaving in certain threatening situations. We want to be emotionally reactive when a toddler runs toward a busy street. We want the world to collapse into the narrowness of the situation, and we want to focus all of our attention and energy on fixing it. We want to stop paying attention to everything else and put all of our energy toward catching the child before he gets to street. We don’t want to waste any energy considering the options. That could be disastrous.

The problem is that the majority of times that we get triggered into emotional reactivity, we are not in that kind of extreme situation. We may feel threatened, but we are not truly in danger. Because we lose our ability to think things through and to contemplate the impact of our actions on others and on the future, and because we feel as though we have limited options, we wind up taking action that actually works against what we are trying to create. In difficult divorced parenting situations we are especially susceptible to emotional reactivity because the stakes are so high. When we feel as though our children’s wellbeing or our relationship with our children is being threatened, it is natural to get emotionally reactive. We barge forward without forethought or caution. Unfortunately, actions that result from anger, fear or resentment are often acts of foolishness because ultimately they do not get us what we want.

For example, since the ability to be in healthy relationships is one of the most important determinants of happiness, our true desire is for our children to be in healthy relationships. Yet often we work against what we truly want by staying mired in anger, negativity or resentment toward our ex or continuing to engage in conflict with our ex. We convince ourselves that the conflict we are engaged in with our ex or the negative feelings we harbor are not really affecting our children.

Children Learn From Us

Children learn about relationships from us. We may think that if we are nice to the cashier at the grocery store or to our friends, we are modeling how to get along with others. This is erroneous. In fact, how we are in relationship with our ex is one of the primary ways we teach our children about relationships. We might have the core desire of wanting our children to learn how to be in healthy relationships, but if we are engaged in a continuing conflict with our ex, if we are feeling resentful, negative or angry toward our ex, we are teaching our children how to stay engaged in conflict and stay steeped in anger, negativity and resentment. Another way we work against our core desires is by “believing what we think” when we are in reactive states. In difficult divorce situations, it is not uncommon to stay in a prolonged state of emotional reactivity. One of the characteristics of emotional reactions, and the most damaging, is that we can’t think of anyone but ourselves. This means we are not thinking about our children. We often think that we are acting in the best interest of our children, but when we are so narrowly focused on our own emotions, we cannot really consider theirs. This is one of the most dangerous parts of these situations. It is easy to think that what WE need to make ourselves feel better is also what our children need. Not being able to discern the difference between what we need and what our children need leads us to do things that actually work against our true desires.

A common example of this is for parents to think that their children should spend less time, or no time at all, with their other parent. This type of thinking stems from fear about how the other parent is parenting the child. We may believe that because we feel fearful or uncomfortable, it is in the best interest of the children to spend less or no time with their other parent. However, unless the child/ren is actually in some kind of danger, this is not true. Creating barriers to their relationship with their other parent, even if we think it is inferior to our relationship, does not benefit our children.

It takes a lot of wisdom to know the difference between what would feel good for us and what is actually good for our children. Wisdom means having the clarity and resolve to stay focused on helping our children grow up to be happy, self-assured, competent and fulfilled in life. Wisdom means being honest with ourselves about whether what we are doing is contributing to our children’s well-being. We want our children to grow up to be happy, to enjoy their lives, to feel good about themselves, to know how to care for and love others, and to feel a sense of accomplishment and competency. Because we want these things, we can find the courage to let go of blame and anger. Because we love our children, we can do the hard work of turning toward ourselves and asking ourselves what WE can do to contribute to their well-being.

Grounded vs. Reactive Desires

To become wise and powerful, we must learn the difference between true or “grounded desires” and “reactive desires.” A grounded desire comes from a deep knowing in our hearts. When we are focused on a grounded desire, we are in an open-hearted, calm, clear-headed and compassionate frame of mind. A reactive desire comes from erroneous thoughts driven by reactive emotions. Reactive desires are the things that we want when we are acting out of our emotional reactivity; when we are collapsed into ourselves and our desires are coming out of fear, resentment, negativity, anger and hatefulness.

Examples of Grounded Desires:

I want to raise children that are well-adjusted and fulfilled in life.

I want to raise my children in a way that will enable them to be successful in life.

I want my life to feel peaceful and contented.

I want to feel fulfilled and secure.

I want my children to be safe.

Examples of Reactive Desires:

I want my children to know the truth about how bad their father is.

I want my child to have less time with my ex. I want to show my ex how wrong she is.

I want to get revenge on my ex.

I want my children to hate my ex just like I do.

I want my ex to suffer.

I don’t want my ex to win.

If we focus on reactive desires, we will create more powerlessness, negativity and unhappiness in our lives. If we focus on grounded desires, we will become more powerful, happy and positive. We will create what we want in our lives. The reason that we are powerful when we are in a grounded desire is that we are calm and grounded, and we are able to think straight and be smart. When we are in an emotional reaction, we are largely unable to engage the part of our brain that exercises judgment and rationality.

It is very difficult to turn away from reactive desires. It takes effort and practice. We can become very attached to our reactive desires. We can hang onto them like they are life jackets in a stormy sea. The problem is that they may feel like life jackets, but they keep us bobbing forever on the stormy sea. Is that how we want to live?

You are on an unexpected journey. It is not where you thought you would be. But you can learn to be happy and to help your child/ren be happy and successful. Be clear about where you are going and make a commitment to cultivating the skills and state of mind that insures you will get there.