Why the First Reaction Is Often Not The Real Reaction

“What am I going to tell my mom?” were the first, shameful words out of my mouth when I learned my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend was pregnant.

I was 14. He was 16. We had only been dating a few weeks. I was still years away from being ready to be sexually active. He welcomed that because he had felt pressured to have sex in his previous relationship.

There was no infidelity involved; the conception had occurred towards the end of their relationship and before ours began.

So really, the news had nothing to do with me.

But that wasn’t my initial reaction.

I had been put on birth control pills a few months prior to manage painful cycles and I was afraid that doctors (and others) would assume that they were also (or even only) desired in an attempt to prevent pregnancy.

And in that moment, my reactive brain thought that this evidence that my boyfriend had been sexually active before me would lead people to assume that he had been sexually with me.

And in that moment, I said something I shouldn’t.

My boyfriend looked shocked. Hurt.

And rightfully so.

It took some time, for him to recover from my misstep and for me to process the news, but eventually I responded with the compassion that I really felt and he realized that my first reaction wasn’t my real reaction.


The first reaction upon hearing big news is impulsive, bypassing any usual filters and mental processing. The initial response is most likely selfish because that is where our thoughts go when controlled by our more primal and reptilian brain. Those opening words are spoken by fear, untamed by rational thought and often amplified by shock.

And those words are frequently a blow to the person who spent time and energy gearing up for this conversation. They may have spent countless hours dissecting their message and carefully selecting the right words with which to deliver it.

Only to be struck with the hammer of the first reaction.

But the first reaction is rarely the real reaction.


If you’re preparing to deliver big news,

  • Remind yourself before the conversation that you’ve had hours/days/years to process this information and that it is brand new (and perhaps a huge surprise) to the person you’re telling.
  • Try to find a way to phrase things so that the information is more of a ramp and less being slammed into a brick wall. This may take more than one conversation.
  • Prepare yourself ahead of time that the recipient of the news may respond poorly. Inappropriately. Even painfully. A little reminder ahead of time can help you not take it personally in the moment.
  • Be patient. Don’t make any major decisions based upon the person’s initial reaction. Give them some time and some space to deal with this on their own before they’re ready to deal with it with you.
  • Gather your support ahead of time, whether this is a person who already knows and has processed the information or simply a favorite walking path. The person just hearing the news won’t be able to be your support person immediately. Don’t expect that of them.

If you’re reciving big news,

  • Breathe. Be aware of your physical responses and work to regulate them. Your fight or flight response has probably been triggered. But you don’t need to do either just yet.
  • Realize that when information is new and unexpected, it is not understood and our brains often catastrophize it just in case. The way you feel about it right now is not the way you will feel about it tomorrow.
  • If you say something you don’t mean, apologize. Sincerly. And then stop talking. The other person has a built-up need to talk right now and your job is to listen and work towards trying to understand what you’re hearing.
  • Understand that a lack of a response in that moment is not an expression of acceptance or approval of the information. Communicate that you need more time to think about this. And then follow up.
  • Remember that no matter how hard this news is to hear, it’s better to have it on the table than covered and rotting beneath the floor. Now you know and now you can process your real reaction.

 

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11 thoughts on “Why the First Reaction Is Often Not The Real Reaction

  1. I enjoyed this, great post. A brilliant book on this subject is The Chimp Paradox – very highly recommended!

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