Don't Be a Knee Jerk Kind of a Person

Published on 14 June 2024 at 12:54

Recently I had a call on my cell phone from someone claiming to be from the IRS.  Within about 15 seconds she had tossed out a few key words: my account, lawsuit, call immediately to avoid legal action, you will receive no other notification . . .

The brain is elegantly set up to perceive a threat instantly.  In fact, the body registers the message before the logical, conscious mind had actually made “sense” of what just happened or what the threat is.

Physiology kicks in first.  My heart rate escalated, my breathing got rapid, my mouth went dry, and my hands started to tremble.  This dramatic change happened before the caller had finished the first four sentences.  And I was driving—which is always a dangerous thing.

We don’t always appreciate the lightning speed at which our brains can process information, especially in any moment that signals threat or danger. It is fast—incredibly fast. 

I call that First Response.

There is very little we can do to control a First Response, but we have almost infinite ways in which we can change or arrange our second, third, fourth responses.  This is where we have the choice to self-determine who we want to be in the world.  The longer we wait to let those first few possible responses ripple through, the more elegant and smart will be our response.

It is like a stone plopping into a calm, glassy lake.  Where the stone first enters the water is the “first response.”  It makes a splash and then ripples begin to move out from that first plop, losing intensity and soothing out as they ripple further and further away from the first incident. 

Time is the best intervention for not over-reacting following an initial “plop” and that first response. This takes some discipline and training.  The brain commands the body to act now to shut down the threat or danger.  This response comes from our first and oldest brain section, the one that sits at the back of the scull, the one we share with the animal kingdom, the one that says kill or be killed.

Yes, that is what I mean.  Acting on our first response usually gets us into trouble.  We revert to fight, flight, freeze, or please.  We are literally not in our “right mind” to make good decisions. It is in this split second that domestic violence happens, where knee jerk reaction can lead us to say or do things we will later regret—or pay a price for.

In the face of real danger such as a fire, mugging, car accident, or a house fire, the first response can serve us very well.  We kick into gear and do what needs to be done--whatever that is.

However, the moments of clear and present danger are few and far between.  Generally our days are filled with much more subtle events that can trigger the brain into reacting in this animal, knee jerk way. A perceived slight, insult, a tone of voice, a criticism, raised eyebrows from another person, even the way somebody slams a door can trigger a First Response signal of danger or threat. 

By the way, I later found out that a whole lot of people got the exact same call from the IRS—scammers out trolling for suckers.

To achieve higher levels of awareness and consciousness we have to begin by observing this ripple effect of reaction both in ourselves and others and waiting.  Yes, just waiting to see what range of possible responses ripple through the brain before we select one.  After that initial first response, the brain begins to calm and function is restored so that we are able to reflect and consider each possible response.  This is both a fun practice and a great discipline.  People around us are constantly going in and out of first response.  Practicing observing this is a little like watching for a shooting star—you have to be watching the whole sky to see a single shooting star.

Attending to the whole sensory field of another person is a skill well worth developing.  We will be doing more and more with it as we go along, refining and perfecting our skill while at the same time realizing that this is a practice for life.  Every moment presents new situations both to us and those around us.  

Let’s practice.  Here are a few examples.  Try to strongly imagine being in that situation and then write down your first response followed by a second, third, fourth, etc.  Some suggest that if you wait until your tenth possible response, you will truly be reaching an elegant, well thought out response.  Try it.  Really push yourself to consider the response not just that comes to mind but possible responses based on who you are, your values, your vision of yourself, the who you want to be in the world. 

  1. You are driving down a busy two-lane highway and a car noses up close behind you and then begins to pass you just as truck coming the other way rounds a corner.  You are forced to hit the shoulder . . .

First Response

Second, third, fourth, fifth . . .

  1. You are in a mixed crowd at a dinner and someone near you makes a crude, racist remark about someone of color . . .

First Response

Second, third, fourth, fifth . . .

  1. You are a teacher in a fourth grade class and you see a little boy grab a girl by the hair and pull her out of her chair . . .

First Response

Second, third, fourth, fifth . . .

  1. Your significant other comes in the door after a hard day and raises his (or her) voice wondering what the hell is for supper . . . ?

First Response

Second, third, fourth, fifth . . .

Now make up three or four examples from your own life.  What situation normally kicks you into a strong first response?  Run each one through your mind carefully and practice pushing out into the ripples to see other possible responses.  Make a mental movie of you actually using one of the more elegant, conscious responses.  The more we practice mentally, the more likely we are to bring that response out when it is most needed. 


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Patricia Jamie Lee
a month ago

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