There are two main ways you can see any situation: either from a reactive, or a proactive perspective.
If you are a reactive person, you are likely to act on your emotions, and be highly affected by events or factors that are out of your control.
If you are proactive, you realize that there is a little gap between what is happening and how you behave about it. You can therefore choose how you behave in many situations.
The more you practice being mindful to that gap and choosing your behavior rather than letting your emotions take over, the more things you will be able to influence in your life.
Proactive people make their own happiness, while reactive people wait for happiness to come to them.
We have all been in situations where we justified our behavior by blaming our circumstances. It is in our nature to be reactive, by validating our actions and choices based on genetics, psychic and environmental factors (1).
For example, you may think that since the majority of your family aren't into sports, you blame genetics for your lack of motivation to exercise. You may even come up with many reasons why exercise is bad for you, such as weak knees, or back pain that will make much sense in your head, even though in reality you would feel so much better if you started exercising.
A classical psychic situation is when the parents push you to pursue a certain education or a career and you spend all your life blaming them for making you choose something that you didn't want to do. It is easier to blame them while resenting your life, than to actually take time and think what you really enjoy doing and change your career or enrol yourself in a totally different education.
You may also blame environmental factors for your behavior. The traffic jam today was extremely horrible, so when it finally losens up, you try to drive as fast as possible but then someone starts driving in front of you extremely slow and you rage. Of course, the traffic jam and "the idiot in front of you" caused your reaction, not you yourself.
Right now, when it's getting very dark and cold in November, I have noticed using this as an excuse to delay going to the gym, grocery shopping, for a walk, or any other planned activity that involves me going outside. I also use it to justify my sugar cravings.
It is indeed convenient to be reactive, since no blame really falls on you.
There is another way to act and even think in all our life situations, which actually makes us more in control of our own lives. Would you like someone, or something else to be in control of your life or do you prefer taking matters into your own hands and living your own life?
Instead of being reactive, by waiting for the right moment to do anything, or blaming everything on our consequences, we can create our own happiness and the future we want, by being proactive.
What is proactivity?
"If you’re proactive, you don’t have to wait for circumstances or other people to create perspective expanding experiences. You can consciously create your own."
- Stephen Covey (1)
In his book "The 7 habits of highly effective people", Stephen Covey explains about being proactive as one of the most important habits to master in order to be in control of your life and effective in anything you do (1).
The main principle is that, when you are reactive and something happens (stimulus), you immediately and automatically react to it (response) (1).
However, when you are proactive, you realize that between the stimulus and response there is a small gap. And you have the power to decide how you will respond to what is happening, by mindfully observing the situation before you react (1).
The more times you mindfully observe the situations, in a non-judgemental way, and choose your behavior without automatically reacting to things, the bigger the gap will become. And the gap has no limits of how big it can become, meaning that your life, your mood and your behavior will be less and less influenced by your surroundings.
You can really become as free as you would like to be. Imagine, if the negative energy of others wouldn't affect you anymore. Imagine if you wouldn't care if someone said something bad about you and realize that it's really not about you but more about them and how bad of a day/life they must be having in order to be talking like this in the first place.
How to be proactive
We all have a self-awareness within us, which allows us to realize how we automatically react to things (1). This is the mindfulness, to observe the situation in a non-judgemental way. One way to see it is to stop labelling situations as good or bad, just observe them and try to fully understand them.
You can read my blog post about mindful listening, which is a similar strategy to mindful observation of situations in our life.
We can also use imagination in case we do not like the present moment (1). For example, if we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we can think of what this situation is teaching us and imagine that we have gone through it and are now telling this to our friend.
We can do this while the difficult situation is still happening, this way choosing our response instead of letting it affect us.
We also have conscience, which makes us aware of what's right and wrong (1). We all have principles that control our behavior and we constantly monitor whether our thoughts and actions are in-line with them.
Becoming aware of this conscience helps us to not lash out at our partner for not having done the dishes when we get home after a long day, because we know that it's not the kind of person we want to be and we are aware that we will regret our behavior afterwards.
We therefore have the independent will, which enables us to act, based on our self-awareness, without being influenced in any way (1).
These principles are exactly what separates us from computers: we can become aware of our coding and change it ourselves when we wish to do so.
Highly proactive people don't blame circumstandes, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. They are aware of the fact that they have the freedom to choose how they want to react to the stimulus (1).
The circle of concern and circle of influence
Observe what kind of thoughts run through your head during the day.
Do you often dwell on your past, are disappointed with the political situation, worry about your future, become annoyed when you see that it's raining outside?
Some things, like the ones mentioned above, are either completely, or partly out of our control, yet many of us still keep dwelling on them more than we should. We can call the things that fall under this category our circle of concern (1).
Inside this circle, there's a circle of influence. These are the things that we also occupy our minds with, but we CAN control or influence them (1). These things are, for example, our friendships, career, nutrition, mental and physical health and many other things that if we act upon, we can control.
Here comes the important part: the things from our circle of concern can move to circle of influence if we take action (1).
For example, we may sometimes feel abandoned by a friend, thinking that they don't care anymore to ask us how we are, or organize a time to hang out. We are often quick enough to jump to conclusions that they are selfish, or they don't like us anymore, when the real reason may be that our friends are felling the exact same thing. They may feel as though we don't write or call them enough and they are tired of being the only ones who care to hang out. By taking action ourselves and calling up a friend without thinking of all those scenarios in our heads, we improve our relationships immediately. We immediately move our friendships from our circle of concern to our circle of influence.
The great thing is that, the more proactive you are, the bigger your circle of influence becomes (1). It's completely natural - the more action you take about things that are somewhat controllable, the more you can positively influence them.
Therefore, by being mindful (observing situations in your life in a non-judgemental way, being present and not distracted, and realizing that there is a gap where you can choose how you behave in this situation), you become greatly in control of your own life.
Your circle of influence grows and so does your freedom to create your own happiness in whatever situation you find yourself.
One thing you can do this week, is to observe your reactions and your thoughts. Are they within your circle of concern or circle of influence? How often do you find yourself blaming your circumstances on your behavior? Think of what you can do about it and then do it.
Remember, you can become in control of your own life as much as you want to be.
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog. by subscribing to my mailing list below.
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Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Creator of The Greater Mindfulness
1. Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Simon and Schuster.