Most of us were raised on the value of self-determination, the principle that we are in control of our lives and free to shape our own destiny. This precept is deeply embedded in our collective conscience and serves as a core tenant in both Western and Jewish philosophy (see Rambam Hilchot Teshuva chapter 5). We are taught from an early age to cherish our independence and staunchly defend our right to be the driver of our own choices.
It may therefore be disturbing to learn that there is a mechanism within us that greatly limits our ability to freely choose. In fact, this component of our internal makeup grants considerable power to outside forces, which in turn are given the authority to determine a fair amount of what we say and do. Many of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors emerge in this way, dictated to us by something or someone beyond our control.
What is this power that usurps our free will and enslaves us to the rule of others?
The answer is our own reactivity, which imprisons us within an emotional cell of someone else’s making.
The Reactive Stance
Reactivity refers to the collection of automatic responses that arise within us when we are triggered by something or someone else. Reactivity tends to occur quickly, outside conscious thought, and without much warning. We can react in how we speak, how we act, or even how we feel.
For instance, conjure up an image of a difficult person in your life. As you do, you may also become aware of what they trigger within you. You may experience tension in their presence, or start to feel angry, fearful, or stressed. You may find that when you are around them, you begin to speak in ways that are unbecoming and uncharacteristic. They may send you into a negative thought cycle that puts you in a bad mood and makes you unpleasant to be around.
Notice that none of these effects – the thoughts, feelings, or actions that result from being with this challenging person – are of your own willful choosing. They are knee-jerk responses to someone else’s influence, whose speech or behavior is currently determining the way you feel and behave.
Unfortunately, we live in a time when the reactive stance is often justified and used as an excuse for our own bad behavior. This is one of the prevailing mindsets behind the modern obsession with victimhood, namely the mentality that I am not to blame for my actions and that someone else is at fault for the decisions I make. It is lamentable that society at large seems to be inching ever-closer to full acceptance of this destructive position. It is now common to hear excuses for some of the worst offenses imaginable, which are explained away as natural reactions to outside circumstances. This reactive position, the idea that “someone else made me do it,” only breeds more finger-pointing and augments the decline of personal responsibility.
But even when reactivity is not used to justify bad behavior, the victimhood mentality can still seep into our lives in harmful ways. This occurs when we resign ourselves to feeling helpless about how others make us feel, as if there is nothing we can do about their effect on us. We become stuck in the sad belief that when something or someone brings down our mood, we have no choice but to remain trapped within the emotional state that they have generated for us.
This way of thinking lies behind the psychological construct known as Learned Helplessness, defined as the belief that nothing I do will help me attain the outcome I desire. For instance, if I want to be happier, Learned Helplessness dictates that there is nothing within my power to create such a reality. So long as this other person is in my life, I am destined to feel unhappy; I am a victim of my circumstances. Unsurprisingly, Learned Helplessness is strongly linked with feelings of depression and despair.
Locus of Control
Regaining control over our choices, including how we wish to think and feel, begins by recognizing that reactive responses do not need to become the master of our fate. Our automatic reactions are merely the instinctive backlash to incoming stimuli. The question of what we choose to do with those responses is entirely ours to answer.
The knowledge that I can choose how I wish to handle my own reactivity is the principle behind developing an internal locus of control. Having an internal locus of control means viewing the starting point of my behavior as lying inside myself. It means that when I become reactive, I can also draw from my personal reservoir of free will to manage my rising thoughts and feelings, and then decide how to respond to the person or situation before me.
This is what it means to take back personal agency. Being an agent involves viewing ourselves as the author of our lives and deciding how we’d like the scene we are in to be written. People around us only provide the setting within which our story plays out, but we write the lines of our script. Even when others behave badly towards us, we can choose to respond in the way that guides how we would like our next chapter to unfold.
Responding to Difficult People
Let’s return to the difficult person we mentioned earlier. Imagine once again being in the presence of this individual. Remember the way they make you feel and/or behave. This time, however, consider how much power you are giving him or her to dictate your mood. Ask yourself: Does it make sense to hand this person the keys to your emotional wellbeing? Think about how alienated this makes you feel from yourself and how different you become from the way you truly wish to be.
Now shift your focus to the part of you that would like to unshackle yourself from your automatic reactions. It’s there if you are willing to look for it. Think about how you would ideally like to be thinking or feeling in this moment if you were able to access your best self. You may wish to have compassion for this other person, or at least not let them turn your mood sour. You may want to remind yourself that they are not always so difficult, that they possess other positive qualities, or that they need your help right now. You may simply want to remember that you are not them, and that even though they are acting unseemly toward you, you do not have to go along with the emotional whirlwind they are pulling you into.
You are free to pause, think, and determine the way you would like to respond in this moment. No one can take that freedom away from you.
The decision to be deliberate in our responses to others is the pathway towards establishing ourselves as the bigger person in challenging relationships. Being the bigger person means finding the inner strength to rise above our reactivity and embody the “me” that we would like to personify in this interaction. It is a proactive rather than reactive stance that we can choose to adopt even when facing difficult circumstances.
When I was growing up, one of our family “shticks” revolved around the phrase daled amot, the principle in Jewish law that one’s personal domain includes the four amot (roughly six feet) of their immediate surroundings. For example, one is not considered to have carried a significant distance on Shabbos (in an area without an eiruv) unless they have traveled beyond their own four amot. During prayer, one may not pass before a person in the middle of shemonah esrei unless there is at least four amot of space between them.
(Our family shtick had little to do with these laws, but rather with a funny pronunciation of the mitzvah to walk daled amot in Eretz Yisrael. This eventually morphed into a quirky way to say “traveled six feet” in virtually any context. Ah, the joy of family idiosyncrasies and wacky inside jokes!)
Only in later years did I understand that daled amot represents an important principle in personal development as well. Each of us is responsible for deciding the environment we wish to create in our own immediate surroundings. We may not have control over how others choose to be, but we can determine the mood and atmosphere within the four amot that comprise our personal domain.
This notion can be thought of as being the kovea, or “establisher,” of the emotional climate we wish to bring about. Even when in the vicinity of difficult people, we have the option to take back our sense of agency and set the tone for how we wish to conduct ourselves. This decision will permeate the space of our personal daled amot and make us the generators of the mood we wish to radiate to others.
Living From the Inside-Out
When we allow our reactivity to dominate, we are living from the outside-in, granting power to outside forces to steer us in whatever direction their momentum takes us. By contrast, living from the inside-out means first deciding how we wish to be and then proceeding to emanate that conviction.
This may be one explanation of the Mishna in Avot 2:8 that describes Rav Elazar ben Arach as a maayan hamigaber, a wellspring of ever-increasing strength. A wellspring is a body of water that draws its source from within itself, as opposed to a river or stream which collects water from other incoming flows. Interestingly, the final opinion in that Mishna states that Rav Elazar ben Arach’s strength “outweighs” that of the other disciples of Rav Yochanan ben Zakai listed in the Mishna. It seems that possessing an internal source of strength that can produce from within itself is among the most powerful personal attributes.
This is the true meaning of self-determination, which is fundamentally a return to the self we wish to express in the world. We learn that there is an engine within each person referred to as the ratzon, or will. The ratzon is the starting point of everything we do, the first link in the sequence of internal events that eventually manifests via our output into the world.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word ratzon has the same numerical value as the word makor, meaning source. By definition, accessing our ratzon means viewing ourselves as the source and starting point from which everything we do flows. It is about looking to ourselves to be the determinant of our behavior. This is a latent power we each possess with the potential to help us withstand and rise above our own reactivity.