Over the past decade, coaching has expanded from performance-related strategies to include perception-related practices.
Coaching’s evolution to expand awareness and perspectives supports greater clarity and presence. This involves deep listening, self-discovery, and discerning mindsets and worldviews by developing practices such as mindfulness, reflection, and embodiment.
Including perception-related learning and practices makes sense as we are living in times of increased anxiety and reactivity.
Social media incentives and conditions support scaling, speed, information overload, multitasking, fragmented attention, and short-termism, causing anxiety, with even more people avoiding situations or winging it to survive.
Unsurprisingly, today’s professionals revert to a reactive mindset—unconscious reactive patterns—to confront or avoid the social, cultural, and technological changes that evoke uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety or fear.
Speed, Fear, and Survival
Research shows that speed and ambiguity trigger our fear and bias. The confusion and anxiety that can result from uncertainty reinforce our habitual and overlearned behaviors and impulses.
In the face of fear, speed, and uncertainty, we develop reactive “mental structures”—patterns, attitudes, and mindsets—early in life to cope with difficult situations.
The paradox is that, with speed, confusion, and uncertainty, we rely on these very reactive mechanisms that hinder learning by preventing individuals from expanding their self-awareness.
The practice of slowing down and increasing awareness, although wise, is also a double-edged sword. Increased awareness offers clarity and understanding. We become aware of the structures, patterns, and concerns we might have ignored or avoided.
Increasing awareness also reveals our unexamined patterns, views, and beliefs. We become aware of pesky habits, unconscious or habitual impulses, and overlearned behaviors. By bringing awareness to habitual energy, we begin recognizing the motivations and behaviors that comprise our reactive self.
Many coaches, programs, articles, and assessment tools work to identify the reactive mindset. Here, the key is to understand our reactive tendencies better.
In this blog, I will clarify this Reactive Mindset and the nature of the Reactive Self.
What defines the Reactive Mindset, and how can we learn to recognize it? How does it impact our learning, and what practices can support us in moving beyond it?
The first part of this blog distinguishes the three sets of defense mechanisms supporting the Reactive Mindset. Then I explore the cost of this mindset. Finally, I will develop the three identities reinforcing the Reactive Self to unlearn these tendencies with practices that support expanding our being.
The Reactive Mindset
“Reactive Mindset” may first imply unstable, impulsive, or emotional outbursts or frenetic functioning. But upon closer examination, we will see a mindset that is more nuanced, subtle, and even deliberate and rational. Yet it relies on habitual or overlearned behaviors.
Systems thinker scholar and author Peter Senge defines reactiveness as an impediment to learning. “For most of us, reactiveness was reinforced [daily] in school,” Senge continues:
We solved problems identified by others, read what was assigned, wrote what was required. Gradually, reactiveness became a way of life. Fitting in, being accepted, became more important than creating. We learned that the way to succeed was to focus on the Teachers’ questions as opposed to our own. Reactiveness is a bane of continuous learning.
The goal is to bring awareness to our reactiveness—to make conscious the unconscious—to expand our experience of being. Recognizing the reactive mindset involves distinguishing and experiencing the different psychological processes as each arises.
I will explore three psychological processes—defense mechanisms, defensive reasoning, and compensation—that individuals employ to manage challenging situations.
Technically, these psychological processes are all defense mechanisms. Each involves a relationship with the ego: to control or comply with situations or protect oneself against perceived challenges or threats. All three are also reactive, responding to stressors.
We will see that each mechanism serves a function. Together, these three functions constitute our Reactive Mindset by leveraging a set of conscious and unconscious psychological strategies:
- Defense mechanism: controlling via the impulsive self
- Defensive reasoning: protecting via the rational self
- Compensation: complying via the striving self
Until recognized and examined, we tend to possess parts of all three. In other words, we control, protect, or comply as “survival strategies” that support our reactive mindset.
These images illustrate reactiveness: (L) represents the psychological processes of the Reactive Mindset, (R) represents the identities of the Reactive Self.
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1 – Defense Mechanisms. The Impulsive Self: Focus on Controlling
Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological strategies to protect oneself from challenges, such as anxiety, emotional pain, or threatening thoughts and feelings. The following are some common defense mechanisms:
Denial is an unconscious process in which one refuses to recognize or acknowledge objective facts or experiences.
Repression is the unconscious blocking of unpleasant emotions, impulses, memories, and thoughts from one’s conscious mind. Repression is like “avoidance.” (Suppression is like repression but is intentional.)
For example, a young child is bitten by a dog and develops a severe phobia of dogs but does not remember how this fear began. Having repressed the painful memory, they are unaware of exactly where their fear came from.
Projection involves unconsciously attributing one’s own feelings, desires, or qualities to another person, group, animal, or object. For example, the classroom bully who teases other children for crying but is quick to cry is an example of projection.
Rationalization is an attempt to logically justify immoral, aberrant, or generally unacceptable behavior (see defensive reasoning).
Displacement involves unconsciously transferring negative feelings from one person or thing to another. For example, someone angry at their boss may “take out” their anger on a family member by shouting at them.
The impulse to control situations leads individuals to use defense mechanisms to maintain strength or power to offer immediate relief from emotional distress by redirecting or distorting threatening thoughts and emotions and shielding against overwhelming anxiety or distress. They also distort reality, which hinders accurate perceptions and decision-making.
2 – Defensive Reasoning. The Rational Self: Focus on Protecting.
Chris Argyris’s “defensive reasoning” concept specifically focuses on the cognitive processes individuals engage in when faced with challenges or threats. Much of his research focuses on the expert and consulting class, well-educated and intelligent professionals who tend to overidentify with their cognitive abilities.
The impulse to protect oneself from embarrassment or feelings of incompetence and maintain influence motivates defensive reasoning by distorting or avoiding information that may challenge one’s beliefs or actions.
Unlike defense mechanisms, defensive reasoning is a cognitive process that operates at a conscious level, involving the distortion or avoidance of information that challenges one’s self-image or existing beliefs.
Argyris stated that most behavior in groups and organizations is shaped by a common set of “governing variables.” These governing variables can do the following:
- Remain in unilateral control
- Maximize “winning” and minimize “losing.”
- Suppress negative feelings
- Be as “rational” as “possible.”
The purpose of all of these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable, or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive.
The simple act of encouraging more open inquiry is often attacked by others as ‘intimidating.’ Those who do the attacking deal with their feelings about possibly being wrong by blaming the more open individual for arousing these feelings and upsetting them.
Both defensive reasoning (DR) and defense mechanisms (DM) are driven by the desire to protect one’s ego, either to maintain a sense of strength or competence (DR) or avoid the discomfort of acknowledging mistakes or weaknesses (DM).
3 – Compensation. The Striving Self: Focus on Complying.
Compensation is a psychological strategy in which one covers up, substitutes, or develops the strength or capability in one area to offset a real or imagined deficiency in another.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the impulse to “be more” motivates compensation as an “adaptive” strategy. Compensation offsets real or imagined weaknesses, frustrations, desires, or feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or incompetence through the gratification or drive toward excellence in another area.
The positive compensation that helps one overcome difficulty also negatively reinforces a feeling of inferiority. There are two kinds of negative compensation:
- Overcompensation: characterized by overachieving in one area to make up for shortcomings in another aspect of life
- Undercompensation: deals with such shortcomings by becoming overly dependent on others
Examples of compensation might include being an overachiever, problem-solving (fixing or rescuing), accommodating and people-pleasing or taking charge, or finding ways to relate (niceness, charm, humor, etc.).
Positive compensation can appear as winning formulas:
- Challenging and provoking others
- Accommodating and overcommunicating
- Avoiding being ordinary
- Preventing problems
- Enabling and even empowering
All of these produce results, “succeed,” or “be more” in the face of uncertainty, inadequacy, or needing to “get ahead.”
In most cases, these are all overlearned “adaptive” behaviors (automaticity) developed early in life or for a specific challenge. However, they are so overlearned and over-practiced that it is second nature.
Compensation is reinforced by many “self-help” plans that inspire people to be extraordinary or society with its images and narratives around perfectionism, conformity, and constant striving and competitiveness.
Cost of Reactivity
Relying too heavily on reactive mechanisms can prevent individuals from discovering, understanding, accepting, and resolving underlying issues. These strategies stagnate development and inhibit the ability to engage in reflective and adaptive learning processes.
As the model below reveals, the cost of the reactive mindset and related mechanisms fixates people at the “events” level of life. Individuals react to the most obvious aspect of life as separate, single events and then move on to the next event.
Systems Thinking Iceberg Model (Bryan et al., 2006)
Lacking Depth and Creativity
Functioning at the “events level” of reality avoids developing a depth of awareness beyond surface-level experiences.
Confusing the reactive self or mindset with one’s natural or conscious self (see blog on authenticity) prevents individuals from experimenting with new conscious strategies to gain depth and insights. Depth of awareness invites concentration to expand one’s view and develop connections that deepen consciousness for generative thinking, creativity, and co-creation.
People can miss the fullest, most consequential view of life: the underlying causes and conditions that answer the question, What causes these patterns of behavior?
In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge offers three levels of explanation:
- a reactive explanation based on events
- a responsive explanation based on patterns of behavior
- a generative explanation based on the structural level
The reactive mindset replies to the stimulus or events before it. Even when it responds, it does so in relation to patterns of events. Only the generative mindset, or the view of structures, can tap into one’s conscious, creative capacity to view and learn beyond obvious events.
Senge shows that without the space for learning or developing the analytical capacity to use patterns to discern systems and structures, people become fixated on events:
If we focus on events, the best we can ever do is predict an event before it happens so that we can react optimally. But we cannot learn to create. … Learning to see slow, gradual processes requires slowing down our frenetic pace and paying attention to the subtle as well as the dramatic.
By actively paying attention to what triggers our reactions, one can better understand one’s mindset and the underlying emotions to tune into hidden patterns, beliefs, and assumptions.
Unlearning The Reactive Self
Fear, confusion, and insecurity often motivate using various mechanisms for self-protection or control. These mechanisms can alleviate anxiety or maintain control when individuals feel threatened or overwhelmed.
Yet even at its best, the Reactive Mindset can promote self-defeating habits that reinforce limiting beliefs without first testing them.
Any unlearning involves experiencing and becoming intimate with our fears, insecurities, and related reactions.
Bringing awareness to our reactive mindset will create spaciousness to experience and release the different habitual mechanisms that form our Reactive Self.
Each of these mechanisms offers insights into understanding the motivation of our Reactive Self supported by our Impulsive Self, Rational Self, and Striving Self.
1 – The Impulsive Self via Defense Mechanisms
The Impulsive Self seeks to control situations with “will” or forceful energy.
This mindset’s impatient and undisciplined nature functions in a zero-sum game. In a binary manner, it seeks instant gratification or relief to avoid discomfort or threats. It can also exemplify emotional or frenetic energy that overreacts, keeps busy, gets swept up, or is easily thrown. It can also be more subtle or habitual. Waiting until one is starving to eat rather than supporting a regular eating schedule is a subtle reactive pattern.
The motivation to relieve the pain of challenges or threats of conflict manifests as controlling others or situations or avoiding being controlled. It often revolves around being right and avoiding being wrong.
Defense mechanisms can range from primitive or instinctual to more advanced forms.
Most Primitive: 1) denial, 2) projection, 3) regression, 4) acting out, 5) dissociation, 6) reaction formation, 7) avoidance, and 8) compartmentalization.
Less Primitive: 9) repression, 10) displacement, 11) intellectualization, 12) rationalization (#11, #12, see “defensive reasoning” earlier in blog), 13) undoing, 14) passive-aggression, and 15) fantasy.
Most Advanced: 16) suppression, 17) sublimation, 18) compensation (see earlier in the blog), 19) assertiveness, and 20) humor.
Foster self-reflection and increase self-awareness. Encourage individuals to examine their assumptions, biases, and defensive thinking patterns. This can be achieved by becoming grounded via the ladder of reference and employing practices such as RAIN meditation, walking meditations, reflection, or journaling.
Patience and self-compassion. Recognize that evolving beyond ingrained, misunderstood, and culturally reinforced reactive mechanisms is a gradual process. It is vital to be patient with oneself and practice self-compassion.
Adopt micro-practices to slow down. This process might be the following:
STOP. Leave or halt any activity (mental or physical) or pause any reaction or impulse.
CALM. Breathe deeply to calm and regulate the nervous system.
CONNECT. Feel the ground beneath your feet, and connect to the experience.
IDENTIFY. Name any fears, expectations, threats, or restless energy as feelings or sensations associated with the experience. Notice where these settle in the body.
RELEASE. Once recentered, release the experience from the sense of self. The experience is not you. If possible, direct a request to manage unmet needs or concerns.
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2 – The Rational Self via Defensive Reasoning
The Rational Self seeks to protect oneself via the “head” or intellect, supported by the defense mechanisms of intellectualization and rationalization.
This mindset’s logical reasoning and knowledge possess a fragmented view that isolates and separates reality into parts to analyze, control, and improve. It focuses on ways to relieve the fear of incompetence or pain of embarrassment through the force of knowledge to convince or intimate another to justify oneself or invalidate another.
The pressure to be the best, to identify with being knowledgeable, and maintaining high performance causes heightened expectations. Argyris’s work reveals a common theme: “Most of us want not only to succeed but also to do so at maximum speed.”
Develop interest and space to adopt the “micro-practices” under the defense mechanisms above. These practices support neck-down experiences of perceived threats, a critical development for those employing defensive reasoning.
Explore the growth mindset that values learning and growth and recognizes that mistakes and challenges are growth opportunities, not threats to one’s self-worth. In her research, Carol Dweck, author of the book Growth Mindset, finds that some children loved a challenge and wanted to grow. Others were terrified of being challenged, fearing they might not know.
Embrace setbacks as opportunities for new questions, perspectives, and unpredictable growth rather than viewing them as failures.
3 – The Striving Self via Compensation.
The Striving Self uses the defense mechanism compensation to comply with situations to relieve the pain of inadequacy with strategies to fit in, get ahead, or succeed.
This mindset’s competitive nature strives to win and be more. By themselves, these “winning strategies” are not problematic. Relying on them unconsciously reinforces beliefs in one’s inadequacy. Ingrained earlier in life, individuals conflate them with their “self” or “identity.”
As a dynamic, compensation offers coping that produces good results, so it is hard to recognize without increased awareness and slowing to feel its energy or impulses. Adopting any compensation strategy can reinforce limiting beliefs. Recognizing strategies can support examining related beliefs of inadequacy, a feeling of “not enough,” or needing to “be more.”
For instance, if an individual walks into a crowded social setting and doesn’t know anyone, do they feel the need to be charming, humorous, or exhibit “inspiring” stories because they do not think they might be accepted, welcomed, or would not belong?
In these moments, when a belief of inadequacy, a feeling of “not enough,” or a need to “be more” arises in one’s sensations, feelings, or thoughts, pausing and practicing the following mantra supports acceptance and remembering what matters most:
I am enough.
This is enough.
This moment is enough.
I accept this moment as it is.
In addition to the mantra practice, develop space for the micro-practices under defense mechanisms.
Also, make time for reflection. Reflecting on actual experiences of compensation will support a better understanding of the signs to recognize these impulses and habitual energies earlier as they arise.
The goal isn’t to stop or deny compensation but to investigate it. What is the sense of inadequacy? Is it necessary? Are there other ways to handle it? Perhaps in that crowded room, listen and trust what arises to guide participation.
The Conscious Self – Relaxes into Experiences.
The process of evolving beyond the Reactive Self begins and ends with awareness. By bringing awareness to our impulses and recognizing them with greater reflection, we will create space to expand our being.
Many find it unbelievable that simply increasing awareness can make this difference. Yet the quality of our awareness brings medicine to our reactive self. With time, commitment, and self-reflection, increased awareness supports facing discomfort and learning to recognize our impulses much earlier.
Buddhist author and teacher Jack Kornfield shares this wisdom:
Every form of genuine awareness is liberating. The more you experience the power of wise attention, the more your trust in the ground of awareness itself will grow. You will learn to relax and let go.
By increasing awareness and implementing these practices, individuals can move beyond engrained conditions of the Reactive Mindset. Such a transition can expand our being—enhance clarity, thinking, and decision-making abilities to create environments conducive to effective learning and leadership.
The space between our observations and actions may be the most important real estate to explore. We can expand the gap between seeing and speaking, between being triggered and taking action.
In that split-second space, we have the possibility to explore consciousness beyond our instinctive reactions—beyond our reactive mindset.
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