Or, how I found a new word that changed my world and saved my life.
“If you’ve raised kids, or are trying to enact change in [an] organization, you know well the phenomenon of psychological reactance, although you probably don’t know it by that name. You might call it the “terrible twos” or “change resistance.”
The discovery of this blog changed my world almost instantly, or at least it did once I’d done more research into the subject, and verified its claims with actual science. However, for the reasons why I was looking for it, I need to backtrack. This is about a ten-minute read by the way, unless you follow the citation links and read those too, which I do recommend.
You see, I recently had a bit of a breakdown – pressures had piled up from all directions, and my brain just kind of stopped dealing with it all. This is why I haven’t blogged for a while – I was doing too much of that too, for a while in every spare moment, and it was part of the problem, in that my brain wasn’t getting a chance to rest. It has now, to a certain extent, sufficiently at least to finally write about what I discovered, and how I came out the other side.
There were a lot of forces in play – work was very stressful, as was home, and trying to look after ageing parents, and on top of that the BPPV (an inner ear condition) had come back, so I was dizzy all the time, which made the Tinnitus worse, and to top it off I had a bad cold, so all in all my head was constantly pounding and ringing.
I was dealing with it all though, but then suddenly, in one moment, I wasn’t. The world started spinning around, mentally and actually, and I turned to a co-worker and said ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I’d started crying before I even sat down in the back office, and it was obvious to all present that I needed to go home there and then. So I did, very slowly, in case I fell over. Fortunately I work within walking distance of home, although in this case it was more like stumbling distance.
Things weren’t any better at home – with hindsight, after all the research below, I guess I was subconsciously determined that no one would understand and to ignore them if they did – and a couple of days later I walked out, with no idea where I was going. Fortunately I ended up at an old best friend’s house, and between him and another old best friend the next day I managed to get the world to stop spinning a little, went home, and started to address the problems, which began, as most things do, with a list.
The list, of course, was very quickly populated with things that annoyed me, so I started trying to work out whether these were things that others were doing, or whether they were just in my head. I approached it in a kind of Stoicist way that I learned about recently in a blog from Christian Mihai, which was all about identifying things you can control, and therefore change, and things you can’t, which should be discarded as things you don’t need to worry about, stress about, or do anything about, and just live with. The list also gave me something to focus on, something to distract me from the fact that the world was still spinning.
But almost as soon as I started trying to address the things I could conceivably control, I started having that old feeling in the chest and throat, a kind of rising panic and anger, along with what I usually describe as a boiling head. I’ve known about this reaction in me for a long time now, but not what causes it, other than that it’s kind of a Fight or Flight response to being told what to do. Somehow I knew it was wrapped up in all of this, so I decided to try to find out what it was. After a while, I came across this blog, and the word that changed my world forever.
Basically, as the author clarifies, “Psychological Reactance is the instantaneous reaction we have to being told what to do (Brehm & Brehm, 1981).”
So, it was a thing after all, and it was called Reactance. You may know all about this already, and it’s just me that doesn’t, although I suspect it isn’t – when I mentioned it to my doctor when I got an emergency appointment, having realised this breakdown was the real deal, he didn’t know the word.
The second of the two best friends I mentioned earlier often tells me that I shouldn’t name things, i.e. say something like “oh, that’s (insert syndrome here)”, and while she almost always knows better than me about these sorts of things, in this case I disagree. I find naming things useful – if I know the name of something, I find it somehow diminishes its power over me. I call it the Rumplestiltskin Theory.
But just in case the blogger was talking nonsense, I went on a deeper Reactance search, starting, of course, with Wikipedia. Yes, I know, Wikipedia can be wrong, but bear with me.
“Reactance is an unpleasant motivational arousal (reaction) to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives.
“Reactances can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended, and also increases resistance to persuasion.”
As I said just now, even Wikipedia can be wrong sometimes, so the next stop was the original theory the first blogger had mentioned, which was proposed in 1966 by Jack W. Brehm of the University of Kansas.
“Why is it that a child sometimes does the opposite of what he is told? Why would a person sometimes dislike receiving a favor? Why is propaganda frequently ineffective in persuading people? And why would the grass in the adjacent pasture ever appear greener?”
“Having noted similar kinds of examples in life around me, I was impressed that people responded negatively to influence attempts that did not frustrate or even threaten to frustrate them, and sometimes the attempted influence was apparently in their own best interest. Eventually I went so far as to think that people would respond negatively to relatively impersonal influence attempts… and even to their own impulses and behavior.
“What led me to this chain of conclusions, of course, was the idea fundamental to reactance theory, namely, that people become motivationally aroused by a threat to or elimination of a behavioral freedom. This motivational state is what is called psychological reactance. It impels the individual to restore the particular freedom that was threatened or taken away. It does not impel the individual to acquire just any freedom–only the one threatened or taken away will do.”
So, it was real science then. There have been many further developments of the theory since then it seems, including this one by Christina Steind, Eva Jonas, Sandra Sittenthaler, Eva Traut-Mattausch, and Jeff Greenberg, ‘Understanding Psychological Reactance – New Developments and Findings’.
“Miron and Brehm (2006) also suggested that another way of directly assessing reactance would be to use physiological measures. Past (Baum, Fleming, & Reddy, 1986) and current (Sittenthaler, Jonas, & Traut-Mattausch, 2015; Sittenthaler, Steindl, & Jonas, 2015) research has demonstrated that freedom threats affect people’s physiological arousal. Whereas in the previous study (Baum et al., 1986) arousal level increased when people were confronted with an uncontrollable event, such as a threat to their freedom, in the more recent studies (Sittenthaler, Jonas, et al., 2015; Sittenthaler, Steindl, et al., 2015) merely imagining being restricted from visiting a flat they might have wanted to rent was sufficient to increase people’s heart rate. Interestingly, there was a difference between the heart rate increase following an illegitimate restriction (unexpected and inappropriate) and a legitimate restriction (unexpected but appropriate, i.e., when people were given reasons for not being allowed to visit the flat). When confronted with an illegitimate restriction, people’s heart rate increased immediately. Heart rate also increased following a legitimate restriction, but only after a time delay. This finding led us to assume that different processes might be involved when people are confronted with different kinds of threats to their freedom. Whereas some threats (e.g., illegitimate threats) seem to follow a more emotional process leading to immediate arousal, others might induce people to reflect upon the situation before getting into an arousal state.”
So basically I was being teenage about things still, despite having thought I’d stopped doing that a long time ago. But this ‘teenageness’ isn’t just a psychological thing it seems, it’s a physiological one too, that feeling in my throat and chest a real physical phenomenon, a response not only to actual situations, but even to imagined ones, those times when you conduct arguments in your head about slights that have yet to happen, and which may never happen, because you want to be angry with whoever it is.
There was one problem though – the ‘teenage’ arguments in my head aren’t with my parents, but with my wife, or my boss, or my doctor, or any number of other people I come across on a daily basis who make me angry/annoyed. They’re even with myself sometimes – OK, a lot of the time – railing in my head against something I know I should do. So they can’t be teenage reactions, surely? But then I found this:
“Parents have a tough job – raising children even though they may not have had good role-models to show them how to do it right.
“Life is full of pressures; parents often juggle work obligations, financial commitments, health concerns, and extended family issues, in addition to caring for their children. With all of the stress, and the lack of experience and guidance, it’s easy to see why many struggle to give their children unconditional love.
“Parents may be disappointed with their lot in life and want better for their kids, so they push and push for success. They might feel as though life has let them down and, in their sorrow, take their sadness out on their children. A parent can be stressed and exhausted, and lack the emotional resources to deal with a child who is not cooperating.
“These conditions can result in a number of things – most significantly, parents who sometimes say things that are not nice to their kids.
“Anyone reading this who is a parent knows that saying such things doesn’t mean you love your child less, but words can hurt. Kids are very impressionable and take things very literally, especially when they hear them over and over again.
“Those kids grow up to be adults who often play the same tapes inside their head. You may wonder why you are hesitant to try something new, lack confidence in certain situations, or struggle with weight or stress. It’s not all your parents’ fault, but the voices you heard growing up certainly contribute to the voices you may play in your head today.
“Your parents probably did the best they could do with what they had; most do. But those lingering voices and emotions can drag you down if you don’t become aware of them and work to change them.”
Of course, this was just a blog as well, and they might be wrong, so I checked, but no, this was based on real psychology, the study of the ‘critical inner voice’. I’m not going to put all the links in, but they can be found at the bottom of the Wikipedia article about it all.
So, in other words, regardless of who I thought I was arguing with in my head, even myself, they were all parent substitutes. Including my wife. Mostly my wife to be honest. I would get annoyed with things she was doing, often really little things, because unknowingly she had supplanted my mother in my head, and I was being teenage to her, automatically reacting against anything she said or did, sometimes even to the extent of not doing things the way she did them, because she did them that way.
Oh. My. God. I’ve turned my wife into my mother. Handy tip – if you don’t want your partner to treat you like a child, don’t turn them into your parent.
I don’t blame my mother by the way – she was just bringing us up the best she could. I don’t blame my father either – he was the traditional breadwinner, to whom we looked up, and who we were always trying to please (and no doubt still are). That’s another part of this thing though, a similar rising feeling when you have pleased your parent or parent substitute, albeit often a feeling you resist with similar Reactance.
But the biggest realisation of all was that it wasn’t just me – I realised my wife was doing exactly the same to me (she’ll deny this of course, and get annoyed with me for suggesting it, but that’s Reactance for you). I often say that she can get annoyed with me even when there’s nothing to be annoyed about – I can have cleaned the kitchen, vacuumed, shopped, cooked supper, done the laundry, and all manner of other things, and yet when she comes home from work (we work different hours) she can still be annoyed with me. But now I get it – she’s being annoyed with me because I’d spent the day being responsible, being the parent, and she’s annoyed with me because she thinks I’ve done it to show her up for being a lazy teenager. Hell, I’ve reacted to her that way many times. So basically, we are both reacting to the other like teenagers.
When I realised this, my world really did start spinning – holy crap, is that really it? Are we really just being teenagers? The answer was an inescapable and undeniable yes.
I quickly went back through all my major relationships – had I done that to them too? Is that why the relationships ended, because I was just ‘being teenage’ and treating them like a mother, and when they (now quite understandably) treated me like a child in response, I got angry and defensive, and ultimately left? The answer, I think, is yes, to a greater or lesser extent, especially with the girlfriend I left for my now wife. I’ve apologised to her for many things in the years since we became friends again, but now it seems I’ve got another one to add to the list. And a few other girls/women to apologise to besides. If you’re reading this any of you, please consider this a profuse apology, my ‘My Name Is Earl’ moment.
My son does the same to me of course, but then most fathers would (or should) expect it of their sons I guess, even if they aren’t teenagers any more. That’s an alpha male thing of course, although my son’s Reactance can be quite extreme, but then, in the past, so have been some of my responses. I’m not proud of losing emotional control in those situations, but I’ve learned that if you’re ever going to move forwards, you have to leave the past in the past, and not dwell on it, or beat yourself up about it. Sometimes you can’t stop yourself of course, but you must. My new phrase – it was what it was. Hopefully now I’ve learned what I’ve learned I can be more understanding, and make things better. I’ve probably also become his critical inner voice, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.
Why don’t they tell you these things when you become a parent?! The answer, of course, is that they probably did, but you got all reactant to them and didn’t listen. I didn’t think my godson who lives with us was doing it though, but it seems he does, but he reacts in a different way – instead of it manifesting as grumpiness at best and anger at worst, as it does with my son, he debates a lot of things we ask him to do, trying to argue against things philosophically. It comes to the same thing though, according to the theory – anger or counterargument, it’s all down to Reactance.
“If persuasion poses a threat to a person’s free behaviors, reactance in the form of negative cognitions, such as counterarguing and anger affect, leads to more negative attitudes toward the message and consequently to less intention to behave according to the message. Counterarguing and anger as an intertwined reactance process have been shown to mediate the effect of perceived freedom threat on reactance effects such as disagreeing with the message (Dillard & Shen, 2005; Kim, Levine, & Allen, 2013; Rains, 2013).”
If you have your suggestions instantly shot down in flames, or someone argues that black is white just to prove you wrong, or spends an hour on the internet doing the same, or they seem cross with you when you’ve done the sensible thing, and many more examples – or if you do these things yourself of course – it may well be down to Reactance.
For me, now I know all this, hopefully I can catch myself doing it, and remember to smile, and breathe, and deal with it in the mindful, zen way with which I’ve learned to deal with a lot of other things in life in the last few years. I can also spot it in others now, not just at home, but at work, and in life in general. And maybe now I can get rid of the ‘teenageness’, in myself at least, and while I can’t get rid of it in others, at least I can now recognise it in them, and know how to deal with it, and smile, and let things go. Most importantly, maybe now I can finally achieve some kind of peace, and maybe, finally, become the Me 2.0 that I’ve been aiming for these last few years.
To quote the Dalai Lama, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
Now all I have to do is try to get the family to realise all this as well, somehow. Of course, to paraphrase the first blog to which I linked above, I am aware of the irony of telling them what to do in a post about Reactance – wish me luck!