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Ultimate Mind Hack Flips Emotional Reactivity Into Calm

Aug. 2, 2022 Psychology Today

I vividly remember the time a client came to see me and was very upset by the rudeness of a friend she had seen that week. “Tell me what happened,” I said. “Well, I saw her crossing the street and I called out her name, but she just ignored me and kept on walking.” So upset and hurt was my client by her friend’s action—or rather, non-action—that she decided not to talk with her anymore.

We’ve all felt disrespected by others at some point or another. But in my client’s case, I felt there was a lot of room for misinterpretation because of a style of thought known as mind reading. As it implies, mind reading suggests that you fill in the blanks on what someone is thinking without really getting hard evidence. 

The mind hack I’m referring to in this post uses mindfulness to flip reactivity into peace and calm. 

In my client’s case, I suggested we brainstorm other possible reasons why her friend didn’t respond. After a while, the client came up with a list of reasons, such as 1) the friend was focused on traffic to safely cross the street, 2) the friend didn’t hear her name through all the noise on the street, 3) the friend was engrossed in her own world of thoughts and things she needed to do, and 4) the friend was late for an appointment. 

After our brainstorming, the client decided to call her friend and check in to see if she was okay. Later, my client reported back that her friend never heard her call. She was simply trying to navigate her way through several important errands that day. 

As we eventually dug deeper into the belief systems of my client, she described that she was never affirmed and truly seen in her family of origin. As a result, she was always on the lookout and ready to judge others as being non-affirming—even if they were friends walking along a busy street! The new awareness helped her become more curious about how her own mental schemas and beliefs were coloring her world and behaviors. 

With Mindfulness, It’s Not About You 

With mindfulness, we develop the mental habit of viewing persons and events—even those annoying and difficult ones—with a more curious, open, compassionate, and welcoming perspective. This seems like a good place to cue up a quote from Jesuit priest and spiritual teacher Anthony De Mello:

When you’re upset, your window is blurred. And … you’re going to straighten out all the buildings because your window is blurred with the rain. Could we clean your windows first? … We see people not as they are but as we are. And it’s amazing how in the beginning we saw people as rude; then when we change, we see frightened people. They’re so scared, poor things, that they’re driven to hostility. Then you’re understanding, you’re compassionate, whereas before you’d react with anger, with hate.

So, when our window is blurred by an inner landscape of beliefs, we can easily get upset for no reason. In fact, the case could be made that reality just happens as it is, and that we make ourselves upset. For example, it’s rainy and cold outside (or too hot and humid), and you don’t like it because it makes you unhappy or uncomfortable. But the rain is just the rain, the cold is just the cold, and the heat is just the heat. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t engage in changing things or making them better, but when we do so from a place of reactivity, we aren’t seeing things clearly. As a result, we may do more harm than good. Reactivity is suffering, and if you react from your reactivity, you can only produce more suffering. 

Practice: Turn Reactivity Into Calm

With this practice, you’re going to demonstrate to yourself how mindfulness can put reactivity to rest. Spoiler Alert: This won’t stop rude drivers from cutting you off or turn an insensitive boss into a caring leader. 

To begin, find a quiet place where you can reflect or journal for the next five minutes. 

  • Right now, think of an annoying event that occurred recently. Maybe someone cut you off while you were driving. Maybe you couldn’t meet a deadline for a work, school, or other project. Maybe you were stuck behind a long line of people at the store. Whatever your annoyance, what were you feeling in the moment? Write this down in detail, including how it affected tension in the body and change of mood. 
  • Now, let’s imagine we could turn back the clock. Only this time, you’ll re-experience the event as if you possessed a newfound superpower—the ability to be like Teflon to whatever comes your way. Actually, your superpower is the ability to be more open, curious, accepting, grateful and compassionate. For example, if your annoyance was with another person, your superpower would open your tender heart—so you would be aware of how that person might have been late for an appointment or not feeling well. You could also use your superpower to shift your attention to be more curious toward something you could have gratitude for—even during the annoying event. In other words, your superpower helps you to not take anything personally!
  • Again, visualize or journal a do-over of the annoying event, only this time picture yourself using your Teflon superpowers. What does this feel like? How different is this from your initial reactivity of the same event?
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