How Understanding ‘Psychological Reactance’ Can Help You Understand Yourself — And Your Kids

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 

Humans are not as complicated as we think we are. Yet, without self-awareness and some baseline understanding about why we do the things we do and think the things we think, humans are really good at making life more complicated than it needs to be. For example, when your boss tells you to rework part of an assignment and you instantly become defensive and refuse to get to work on it — even though you know they are right — you have created a self-sabotaging mindset that often wastes time and energy.

Perhaps you have been on the other side of this type of situation when you ask your child to do something, and instead of just doing the simple ask, they immediately resist and argue with you. Why are we like this? Because we all have a psychological reflex called reactance.

Psychological reactance is that knee-jerk reaction to not do something when we are told to do it. It’s the voice inside of us that digs in our heels, turns our back, crosses our arms in protest and says, Nope. Not doing it. Even if it’s something we want to do, need to do, and will eventually do anyway.

This is different from Oppositional Defiant Disorder, where kids and teenagers lash out against and actively refuse to respect and obey authority figures and rules. Reactance is a reaction to feeling like our freedom and choices are being taken away. This can be a great tool to protect us and our autonomy because we get a rush of adrenaline that encourages us to fight or flee.

When someone tells us what to do, our brains freak out and demand that we do something about the threat to our personal safety. We become cornered prey; we need to fight. We need to find a way out! Reactance is like an overprotective friend who is always on the lookout for danger. Our brains plan an exit strategy and our behavior becomes defiant, rude, self-sabotaging, and/or violent because we need to regain the sense of control we think we lost.

This response is useful for actual threatening situations. If someone demands you go into a weird, dark room, drink an unknown liquid, or send your bank account number to an offshore account, that fuck no instinct is great. But often the danger isn’t real, and we need to thank our primitive instincts for trying to keep us safe and then reframe our thinking and actions.

Let’s look at the way we do this to ourselves. We schedule a walk with a friend, plan several hours to finally organize a room in our house that has been driving us bonkers, or sign up for time at the gym. We want to do these activities. We even took the time to take the steps to make them happen. And yet when we “force” ourselves to do said activities, we have to convince ourselves that past us knew what was best for future us while present us makes excuses and rather do anything else than following the plan that we set up.

Author Nir Eyal says we do this because “In that moment, it doesn’t feel as though you’re deciding what to do. Rather, it’s you from the past giving orders to your present self. Ugh, who does that guy think he is? Psychologists tell us this paradox is why we can often be hypocrites — we say we’ll do something, but when the time comes, we don’t.”

In his book “Indistractable,” Eyal writes about the importance of reframing these thoughts. Instead of bristling over the idea that we have to do something, it’s better to think about the task as something we get to do. When we tell ourselves this, it gives us a sense of control even though we were in control the whole time. See? We’re really pretty simple creatures. We want control or at least the sense of having it.

This is one reason why the pandemic has been so difficult: the uncertainty of what we are experiencing makes us feel threatened and out of control. This bleeds into the reluctance of folks wearing masks. Just the suggestion of wearing a mask made many people refuse to do it. When masks became mandated, the resistance grew stronger. Masks become political and a perceived threat to people’s freedom.

Many people turned the narrative into one that celebrated our ability to protect ourselves and others. Masks give us more freedom to live our lives safely. They are a gift to get us through this scary and uncertain time. Of course they’re uncomfortable and inconvenient at times and a reminder that we are still fighting a very serious virus, but when we reframe the idea of having to wear a mask into getting to take care of others, the choice becomes easier — for some of us — and one that feels like ours, especially when we take the time to pick out fun designs or styles.

Our kids also show reactance. We ask them to brush their teeth, get ready for school, or wear a jacket when it’s 20 degrees outside. Few children are instantly compliant to our requests. I pick my battles and sometimes don’t have time for negotiations, but I have learned that by giving my children choices, it helps to get them to do what’s necessary to move the day along. They are choices I pick, but asking my kids to pick up their toys now or before dinner or asking which chore they want to do to help around the house gives them some say in the matter and a feeling of autonomy.

We don’t like being told what to do, even when it’s good for us or the right thing to do — and neither do our kids. But there is a legitimate, cognitive reason for this bristling. It’s important to acknowledge this reactance in ourselves and then let go of our defenses before they become too big to prevent us from taking advice, suggestions, or directions from others. If we struggle too much with input that really isn’t a threat to anything but our ego, we will often have to deal with karma, if not the humbling experience of natural consequences.

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