There are many ways that spirituality can turn abusive. Spiritual beliefs can be used to justify abuse, cover up abuse and be abusive in nature in and of themselves. I am going to be talking about these abusive friendly aspects of spirituality in depth over the course of my career. But today, I’m going to start with the abuse surrounding standard beliefs about reactivity.
The first thing to understand is that most people in the world today don’t differentiate between a reaction and the actions inspired by a reaction. It is all lumped into the same category. For example, if you see a nasty comment from someone posted on your social media post, you may immediately react with feelings of being hurt, feeling shame, flushing red, feeling anger, the impulse to fight back. This is a reaction. If you act on that impulse by posting a mean comment back, that is an action that was inspired by the reaction. We need to make the distinction between reactions and actions inspired by reactions.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that unconscious reactivity causes a lot of problems in the world. For example, if a woman cheats and her husband becomes jealous and is unconscious of his powerlessness and rage to the degree that his reaction escalates into the action of the murder of his wife, it is easy to see that reactivity can lead to dangerous things. If we have been hurt by someone’s reactivity inspired actions in the past, we are likely to make an enemy of reactivity entirely. We see reactivity as the bad guy.
Traditional spiritual gurus have projected a persona into the world of being individuals who either have no reactivity or who have entirely mastered their reactivity. They set the standard of not only what is expected of any master or teacher, but also the standard for what being a perfect human is. Therefore, our idea of what we all are striving to be and must be in order to be perfectly loved is non reactive. We imagine that in a state of non-reactivity, we are constantly open, unconditionally loving and perfectly in control of ourselves. The bottom line is, if we subscribe to these ideas and faiths, non-reactivity is what we expect from ourselves as well as each other.
So, what if I told you that you cannot control your primary internal reactions to something? Feelings do not exist in a vacuum. They always arise as a result of something else. They are always about something or towards something. When you came into this life, you were essentially operating through felt perception. You come to this world already encoded with reflexes, which are reactions. An example of one such reflex is that if you hold an infant on its back with its arms loose; it will react as if it is bracing a fall. This is called the moro reflex. The child doesn’t have to be thinking about being abandoned in a cognitive way to feel the terror in their body of being separated from their mother and to cry and reach out for her in response to that separation. What we are dealing with here is cause and effect. Can you imagine expecting a dog to not react to being kicked? Can you imagine poking a sea anemone with a stick and expecting it not to close up? Can you imagine expecting a baby calf not to cry out when it looses its mother in a field? Unless you are dissociated or disconnected, you will have a reaction to things in the world. It is called being alive.
Our reactions to things also happen in proportion to our previous life experience. It is really tempting for us to say that someone overreacted to something because they didn’t react like we would have reacted. But even then, someone who was at war with explosions going off around them is going to react differently to fireworks than someone who has been safe all their life and has no association with explosions and death imbedded in their nervous system. There is no such thing as an overreaction. For this reason, I want you to watch my video titled: Drama (How to Avoid Drama and Drama Queens).
The most abusive hallmark of an abusive home environment is when one of the parents (classically we call this the narcissist) hurts someone in the home but when the person has a reaction to that injury, the reaction is instantly made the problem and not what was done to cause it. So you can understand this, I will tell you a part of my past. When I was younger, the man who abused me for years had tied me to a hitching post to rape me. The force of the rape caused me to have a bloody nose. When he finished and saw me both crying and also bleeding, he shamed me for both crying and bleeding. Just so you can get how twisted this was, in his mind, the problem wasn’t the rape that caused the bloody nose and the crying… the problem was that I had those reactions.
The reality is that in our universe, there is cause and effect. It is inevitable that if someone punches you in the nose hard enough that your nose will start bleeding. It is inevitable that when someone sets up to punch you, you will flinch and feel your body release adrenaline. I want you to imagine for a moment someone punching you in the nose and then, when it starts to bleed, acting like something is seriously wrong with you because your nose started bleeding. Perhaps they tell you, “you have such weak capillaries in your nose, we really need to take you to get you checked out”. This may seem like an extreme example, but it isn’t. In spiritual communities, we are doing this to ourselves all the time and we are doing it to each other all the time.
We can’t own the shame of having done something that caused a negative reaction and so we immediately make the person wrong for having a negative reaction and even more wrong for any action inspired from that negative reaction. This is called shame deflection. To learn more about this dynamic of shame deflection, I ask you to watch my videos titled: Deflection, The Coping Mechanism From Hell and The Number One Relationship Obstacle And How To Dissolve It. If people refuse to feel or own their shame, they can’t take any responsibility. This is true if someone is perpetually in the victim role to escape responsibility or if someone is doing something to hurt others and will not accept that fact and thus makes the victim the one to blame for his or her reactions.
We expect ourselves and each other to have no reaction when someone betrays us (it’s just a part of us betraying us and so, if we focus on that, we wont get mad back). We expect ourselves and each other to have no reaction when horrible memories are triggered (it’s the past it’s not now, if we can just be in the now, we wont feel those feelings). We expect ourselves and each other to have no reaction when someone says something painful to us (try to see them with compassion instead, they wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t in even worse pain). We expect ourselves and each other to have no reaction when we lose our loved ones (there’s no death and if you feel loss, you’re stuck in illusion). Do you see how this goes yet? I could make a list 5,000 miles long about how spiritual beliefs are used to suppress reaction and to make reaction wrong. They are used to shame you if you have a reaction. In other words, if you have a reaction, you are falling short of the standard of human perfection and something is wrong with you.
How many times in social circles have you heard this “How people treat you is their karma and how you react is your karma?” Or “It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to it” or “How you react emotionally is your responsibility?” Like I said, it takes an idiot not to see that if we simply react unconsciously and as a result take actions inspired by those reactions, it’s going to cause a lot of problems for us and other people. But for the sake of awareness, look at the potential danger in these teachings. We can use these teachings to avoid looking at and owning the impact we have on others completely. That can lead to a wickedly painful world… One where as if it isn’t bad enough that we did something that had negative impact on someone that hurt them, we also made them feel like something is wrong with them for feeling bad or getting hurt or having a negative reaction when we did that thing. We can use these beliefs to completely avoid seriously looking at what we are doing to other people and what we need to do differently. And we can use these beliefs to shame ourselves on top of our pain, which creates even more reactivity.
Aside from the obvious external cruelty that this belief and expectation can open the door for, it can lead to self-abusive shame. If we operate in the world with the belief that we should not have a negative emotional reaction to anything or that, any time we have a negative reaction to something, we will believe that we are bad and wrong for having it. Or that something needs to be fixed in us if we had that reaction. Therefore, instead of being able to address the very valid reaction that we had, we will immediately unconsciously invalidate it. That belief that something is wrong with us that needs to be fixed or bad about us will slide over the top of the initial reaction like a thousand pounds of more pain. The shame will in essence suppress our reaction, but the pressure of it will cause so much pain that we will either explode or collapse. And so often when we overreact with an emotional crisis or have an emotional breakdown, this is the tormenting process that is occurring within us. These beliefs can lead to bigger reactions, instead of smaller reactions.
I must mention at this point that if this is a chronic pattern in your life, it is a guarantee that in your childhood, the adults in your life could not own that they caused any negative reaction in you and so, if you ever had a negative reaction to anything, they took no responsibility for causing it and instead decided that you were the one with a problem for having a negative reaction where a negative reaction was not warranted. And if any of you are bulimic or are cutters or have been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, you can thank this pattern for it.
I know that many of you who are watching this are going to feel like if we make reaction ok or normal, then it is the same thing as condoning reactive abuse. If we make reactions ok, then revenge is ok and things like screaming and violence and murder ok and so it will happen more. What I will say to that is that we have to separate out the concept of reaction from the action the reaction inspires and stop judging reaction as not ok. Instead we have to accept that we are always going to have an initial reaction and that the initial reaction is often going to happen at a level far more primitive/instinctual than our cognitive processing level. And that there is no such thing as overreacting at that level. And so, we have to begin to care-take our reactions as if there is a real reason for the reaction… A real reaction that was either caused or triggered by someone else. This is the real responsibility we have. Face it as if it is valid because it is. If we sink into victimhood, we avoid taking responsibility for caretaking our pain, which might not only involve finding ways to heal and feel better, but also asking a person to change a behavior toward us. If we sink into the opposite, which is shame for having a reaction to being hurt, we also take no responsibility for caretaking our very real reaction.
We need to adopt the mentality that any reaction we have is warranted because it is always coming from a real place. We just have to figure out where that real place is. You are going to have to accept that as long as you are alive, you are going to have reactions. So is everyone else. If we can see those initial reactions as valid and real, so as to not add shame on top of them, we can figure out what that reaction is telling us about our truth in the moment and our past unresolved pain and about that we need in the moment. We can use them to become more aware. We can address them like we would address real wounds. And by doing that, the actions we take towards others as a result of our reactions will change.
If a trigger is to blame in a situation where you are having a reaction, it is probably not the other person’s fault that you have sensitivity in that area. But that trigger still exists for a very valid reason. Blaming them for the trigger isn’t fair. But neither is expecting yourself not to have it or telling yourself that something is sick or wrong with you because you have it or telling yourself that because this is a trigger, you shouldn’t have the reaction towards this new situation. If a dog who had been battered, hid in its cage despite being placed in a loving home, we wouldn’t get upset at the dog as if it has no good reason to be doing that. So why do we do that to ourselves and each other?
We have the tendency of believing that if we just changed our perspective or the way we were thinking or the way we interpret the things that happen or were enlightened enough, we wouldn’t have the reactions we have in the first place. Can you see that this puts us at war with reactions in the first place? We can’t take care of something we don’t think should be there in the first place. We’re already pushing it away, so how can we pull it close enough to explore it, examine it and care-take it?
When we have a reaction, we need to treat the reaction as if it is a thing to be deeply understood because it is valid. It exists for real reasons. If your leg was hit by a lead pipe, it would break and the pain you would feel would exist for a very real reason. It works the same way with emotions. We have to look at the cause. We have to look at what it caused us to feel in our bodies and feel emotionally and what it caused us to think. We have to ask what it is letting us know about what we need. We need to meet those needs and this includes communicating needs that we have to the people around us. Action actually comes after reaction. We have made an enemy or reactions because we confuse actions that are taken as a result of a reaction AS a reaction. We can intercept this chain from reaction to action. But we need to stop expecting ourselves to intercept this chain from external event to reaction. It is futile. Let things like altering your perspective and attitude and interpretation be part of the caretaking process of your reaction. Not a way to try to convince yourself you shouldn’t have had the reaction in the first place. Your reaction is always legitimate.
If we want to learn to intercept the chain between reaction and the action it inspires, the game we have to stop playing with other people is the game of treating them as if their reaction is not legitimate. And even if we don’t use words to convey this, if we are thinking it, they will feel it. They will be 1,000 times more likely to carry out an action in response to their reaction that will be escalated because we have given them no opportunity to address the reaction they are having if we judge it as something that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.
We should be using any reaction we have in order to become aware. But be aware the risk of believing it is possible not to have a reaction. Beware of the risk of feeling shame or being shamed for having a reaction.