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You're Not the Boss of Me!

Ever seen someone reject obviously good advice? Ever felt like stubbornly shouting "NO!" to a reasonable suggestion, just because it felt a bit bossy?  Ever done something less-than-healthy just to feel a bit more free?  If so, that may have been an encounter with a quirky little habit we humans have: reactance.

Reactance is the tendency to reject ideas as controlling, manipulative, demanding, biased, or incomplete, or as somehow restricting our freedom of choice, even if they seem reasonable or helpful on the surface.  When someone gives unsolicited advice or tries to convince us of something by presenting a one-sided argument (even if they are communicating rationally and with love), a part of our brain wakes up and throws a little tantrum, yelling "You don't tell me what to do!"

A tricky thing about reactance is that it often occurs even when we agree with the statement we're responding to.  And, it shows up regardless of the intentions of the person advising us.

Here's an example:

Billie says: "You should quit smoking." (unsolicited advice)

Francis thinks: "You're not the boss of me!  I do what I want!  I'm gonna light up right now!" (responding with reactance)

But, it could have gone like this:

Billie says: "I know smoking helps you relax and gives you a break from your stressful day.  I'd have a hard time quitting something that did that for me.  But, I worry it could stress you out more in the long run, or even make you sick." (expression of understanding and caring)

Francis thinks: "Hmm.  They get why I need my cigarette breaks.  And they seem to really care about me.  Maybe I'll quit.  Not today, but I'll think about it." (responding without reactance)

We can't force people to change, and if we try, we often get the opposite of what we hoped for.  Similarly, if Francis is having trouble quitting smoking and thinks, "Just quit already! I'm so weak! I can't believe I do this to myself!" reactance may kick in as if someone else had made those statements: "YOU DON'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!"

By expressing concern in a way that honors a person's ability to choose and acknowledges the complexity of a situation, we encourage them to consider change and may even embolden them to make a difficult decision.

Moreover, awareness of our own reactance, toward others and even to our own thoughts, can be a valuable tool.  If Francis was aware of reactance toward Billie's statement (in the example above), Francis could seize the opportunity to consider for themselves whether Billie had a point, even if Francis didn't like how it was communicated.

What is the alternative?  Communicating understanding, acceptance, and compassion to others and ourselves.  If we communicate in a caring and nonjudgmental way, we may enable ourselves to change and help others to change themselves.

(revised 01/05/2019)



 Patrick Turbiville, LCSW 

  Individual & Group Psychotherapist...


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