Respond vs. React — with Dan Sanfellipo

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In the past I never took the time to pause and assess a situation completely. I could see the immediate circumstance and I instinctively needed to take control of it. I learned to “gain the upper hand” early in my life and I practiced it daily. I became a  champion at controlling and manipulating situations so that I would emerge the victor; the most powerful, the most feared, the most respected.

In recovery, it takes practice to unlearn the instinct to react with aggression. It takes practice to assess situations beyond the immediate intense emotion and pause long enough to respond appropriately rather than react instinctively.

With about a year clean/sober, I was having lunch with a dear friend I’d known for twenty years. She was going through some difficulties and reached out to me for “spiritual advice straight from the Buddha.” I was feeling clear-headed and proud of myself for being available and grounded enough to help. At that time, having lunch at Polly Pie’s in Huntington Beach, I was able to focus on someone else. I was having a positive impact on another human being.

As I was driving home from that spiritually uplifting experience, some guy pulls in front of me on the freeway and slams on his brakes. He wouldn’t let me pass and he wouldn’t speed up. It was aggressive behavior and my old instincts kicked in with a vengeance—it was ON. I ended up chasing him down the freeway, pulling up next to him and “ordered him” to pull over through my rolled down window. I got in front of him and slammed on my brakes—I was SHOWING him who “I” was! It was maniac behavior on my part.

The only sign of anything spiritual is the fact that the guy did not pull over. As a third-striker, any violent confrontation would have led to my immediate arrest and I would be facing another life sentence. From Buddha to Badass in the blink of an eye. It’s a daily battle. It became clear (although not immediately) that victory over these extreme reactions would require continuous practice—practicing response rather than reaction which would require leaning how to pause.

Two years later, I had a similar situation with a very different response. Driving home late one night from Jiu Jitsu after a couple hours of training, this car pulls up on my passenger side. The guy driving is honking his horn and flipping me off. He’s insanely angry and yelling “use your blinker! Are you autistic?” He was doing what I did before—being a badass.

Instinctively, every fiber in my body wanted to react. My head was reacting internally, “How bad do you wanna find out? “Pull over and I’ll show you.” “Let’s ask your mother!” But I paused at the thought that quickly followed: the potential and probable outcome. I did not want to be calling my girl from jail to say I wouldn’t be home tonight—or maybe ever. I did not want to have her tell my boss that I wouldn’t be into work tomorrow—or ever again.

I looked at this guy as he waited for my reaction. Instead, I responded, “Matter of fact, I am.” I rolled up my window and kept driving. He was furious, took the next right turn, and it was over. I went home, rested, and played the scenarios out in my head. I’m grateful that there was no fight, no gunshot, no blood, no prison. I still hate being talked to with disrespect and aggression. I still go quickly into “You don’t know who you’re messin’ with, but I will set you straight” mode.

Now, I know how to pause. When I’m in a moment and don’t like what’s going down, I can pause long enough to choose my response rather than react instinctively. The consequences of a situation will be drastically different because of that pause. In that pause I can make a choice.

I still want the upper hand. I still have a strong survival instinct. With the help of my willingness to lean on a higher power and my willingness to practice unlearning some old behaviors, I can respond to life in a positive rational way rather than react with force and dominance. Ironically, I earn respect

Written by Karen VanDenBerg based on interviews with Dan Sanfellipo

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