There are two faces of Emotional Reactivity.  Two sides of one coin when it comes to how we react – behave – when we are emotionally triggered.

All human reactivity can be categorized as being more of one form than the other. 

It makes people’s behavior a bit easier to label, if not understand.  This includes our own.

Here are the two types of Emotionally Reactive Behavior:

  • Getting smaller
  • Getting bigger

Yes, that’s it.

It can be said more fancily, which helps flesh it out, but it all comes down to getting smaller or getting bigger – to get our needs met.

Minimizer – Maximizer

Engulfment – Abandonment

Distancer – Pursuer

Underfunctioner – Overfunctioner

Conflict Avoider – Conflict Aggressor

Defend – Attack

And on.

We are capable of enacting one type of emotionally reactive behavior in one moment, and then its counterpart in another.  We are capable of having strong tendencies in one relationship, and the opposite in another.  Variations can correlate with eras of our life, time of the month, circumstantial – contextual – elements, and what we had for lunch.

Our strongest reactive habits tend to show up particularly when triggered by our life partners.  We get triggered by all kinds of people and situations, and we don’t all have life partners, but the lion’s share of our worst moments of reactivity fall into the home base and in the dynamic between partners.

There are reasons for our intense triggers with our partners that are beyond the scope of this article. 

Suffice it to say that there is no one on Earth, usually, onto whom we project as much and as intensely, our greatest, deepest, most acutely-unmet needs from our past, and our most intense expectations to have them met now. 

Therefore, the disappointment – the trigger – when they don’t meet all of our needs and expectations – which, of course, they cannot – is super painful.  Like living the childhood wound all over again, with the person who was “supposed to” make it all better.  But I’m getting into the psychological meat that is tempting, but beyond the scope of this writing.

But, patterns in our reactive behavior can show up with parents, siblings, co-workers, bosses, employees, friends, and the guy who passes you on the highway.  Choose a relationship that you know triggers you regularly to do the following exercise.

I am calling attention to this distinction to give you a plan that you can use to start observing and categorizing moments of your own and your partner’s (or significant/not-so-significant-yet-significant other person’s) reactive behavior.  There is an art and a science to healing through conscious communication, and all science starts with observation (much good art does, too).  So, observe.

Assignment:  Notice times when you get flustered, angry, irritated – even subtly – and see if your behavior has you get bigger in any way (louder, meaner, scarier, taking up more oxygen in the room) or smaller (quieter, more scared, people-pleasing, taking up less oxygen in the room). 

Observe your partner, too.

Take notes.  Maybe create a simple table to list who’s doing what so you can track patterns.

The patterns may reveal a collaborative effort – I get bigger when she gets smaller.  He gets smaller when I get bigger.  See what you can see.

Just making the effort to notice tendencies in the dance of reactivity brings the light of consciousness to the dark world of unconscious triggers and reactive behavior.  This is a gem on the path of healing.  It shows us where the pain is.  We can’t heal what we can’t see or feel. 

Once we see our most painful patterns, we can more effectively work on making small but influential shifts in our own behavior, which creates a ripple effect in the choreography, allowing something new and different to happen.

That is how growth is sparked.

I wish you scientific observation of a messy swamp of reactivity.

In HeartMind,