Becoming nonreactive starts with awareness that what we have until now considered “just the way we
are” is in fact not at all who we really are, but the product of unconsciousness. The process of losing our
reactivity accelerates as our awareness deepens. Perhaps we don’t stop yelling at our children right away,
though now we yell for eight minutes rather than ten. This is because, part way through our yelling, we
suddenly realize how unconsciously we are behaving and catch ourselves.
Maybe we still become anxious over something our child does, but instead of generating intense mental agitation that results in an entire day of emotional drama, we are able to calm ourselves after an hour or so, drop our reactivity, and sit in our anxiety simply watching it. When a parent tells me they are upset that they lost control of their emotions in front of their child, they expect me to judge or guilt trip them. Instead, I congratulate them. I say, “Now we know how your unconscious looks, which is an important step forward.” It is indeed an important step forward because most people in the world have no clue that their reactivity is a manifestation of unconsciousness. To realize this about ourselves is a huge breakthrough.
It’s vital to accept unequivocally that we are going to unleash our unconsciousness from time to time. The conscious parent knows how to use the emergence of their unconsciousness in a manner that’s the ultimate healing. They know how to recognize a reaction, albeit after the fact. They aren’t afraid to confront their unconsciousness. They live by the dictate, “I expect to be triggered, entangled, overwhelmed, and to engage in egoic parenting at times. However, I will use the lessons embedded in these occasions to evolve as a person and to help my children evolve as well.”
As parents, we are often forced to react to our children with blinding speed, following our gut instincts, often not pausing for reflection before choosing our response. Before we know it, we have escalated a particular dynamic and within no time find ourselves caught in a negative equation with our children. I once worked with a single father, Peter, who was having a particularly hard time with his fifteen-year-old son, Andrew. Their relationship was reaching a state of dysfunction. Andrew was manifesting the classic symptoms of a rebellious teenager—isolating himself from his father, only interested in hanging out with his friends, chatting via his computer until late at night, not doing his homework, failing his classes, and using marijuana.
Peter was enraged. They had shared a close relationship when Andrew was younger, but for the past few years their only engagements had been tense arguments. At one point, Andrew had asked to live with his grandparents in another state, which Peter didn’t support because the grandparents were elderly. Day after day, father and son locked horns over household duties and homework, with Andrew saying he had already completed his homework even though he hadn’t touched it.
During one particularly upsetting evening, Peter found himself so worked up that he threatened never to talk to his son again, then stormed out of the house. As he walked around his property in an agitated state, he called me to report, “I’m at my wits’ end. This boy absolutely refuses to respect me or my ways. Here I am, setting everything aside to be with him, and all he does is be obnoxious and defiant. He puts forth no effort at all. I’m sick and tired of the way he treats me. If he doesn’t want to be my son, so be it. I won’t put out any effort either. I can be just as uncaring as he is. From today, I will no longer be loving or patient. I’m washing my hands of him.”
Unable to see that he was in a highly reactive state of mind, Peter became even more volatile. Ending our phone conversation, he marched into his son’s room, unplugged the computer, then threw it on the floor. When Andrew protested, Peter slapped him across his face and told him he regretted Andrew had ever been born. Peter was going through what countless parents of teenagers endure. Although it appears that a parent may be justified in their reactions at such a time, we tend to forget that this dynamic was set in motion years ago. What started out as a battle of wills and a quest for control had escalated into a traumatic relationship for both.
Inextricably entangled in his own emotional drama, his own interpretation of his son’s motivations, and his own feeling of a lack of power, Peter allowed himself to become so deeply triggered that he lost all control of himself. When we react out of our own need for power and control like this, we fail to ask, “What does my child need from me that I have been unable to give so far?” This father had long stopped listening for what his son truly needed from him. It’s possible Andrew reminded Peter of his own childhood, mirroring inadequacies he had worked hard to overcome over the years. Perhaps he was so wedded to the script of control that he couldn’t bear his son to deviate from his expectations in the slightest way. Maybe he was so invested in the idea of perfection that he couldn’t stand the fact Andrew was flawed. It’s also likely that Peter saw his son as a reflection of the kind of parent he was, an issue doubtless laced with guilt for the fact he had divorced Andrew’s mother years ago. Whatever the underlying motivation, it was clear that Peter had taken this personally, which had triggered an egoic reaction. Andrew, as all children do, picked up on the fact that his father had lost connection with his own authentic self.
Peter had created many negative interpretations around his son’s acting out, all of which were personal. These interpretations involved such judgments as “my son doesn’t care about my feelings,” “my son is disrespectful of me,” or, “my son is purposely being defiant.” None of these interpretations served to improve either Peter’s or Andrew’s state of mind, yet this is how most of us react to situations we are uncomfortable with. Whenever we make personalized interpretations of others’ behavior, we risk plunging ourselves into cauldrons of roiling emotion. Were we to make depersonalized, neutral interpretations, we wouldn’t suffer the consequences of negative emotions. Peter’s interpretations evinced no neutrality, let alone curiosity about his son’s behavior. None of his interpretations suggested “my son is in pain and needs help,” “my son is crying out for help and doesn’t know how to behave right now,” or “my son has need of my patience as he passes through this difficult phase of identity-confusion.” Instead, the interpretations Peter put on Andrew’s behavior generated intense mental resistance to this behavior, rendering him incapable of responding in an as is manner. To respond as is engenders not just acceptance, but indeed reverence for the individual’s unique path.
Interpretation happens in a split second, as we decide that something is either in tune with our ego attachments or isn’t. As long as life mirrors our ego attachments, we are fine. The moment it dares to contradict our deeply held assumptions of how things are supposed to be, we lose our centeredness. All dysfunction involves our deeply personalized interpretations of the events around us. The sad byproduct of this is that our children are left feeling they are the cause of our moods, which results in guilt and can lead to a sense of worthlessness. From this place, they then react back at us. It’s crucial to recognize that the seeds of this equation lie in the initial judgment we make in response to their behavior. Our children don’t intend to trigger us; they are just being who they are. Being triggered is an inevitable part of any relationship, so there’s no room for blaming ourselves or anyone else. However, we are responsible for examining our unconscious reactions so that we can curtail them. The reason we enter a state of blinding unconsciousness is that we have an unresolved emotional charge, which emerges in response to our children simply being children