Because our attitudes and behaviors flow out of our paradigms, if we use our self-awareness to examine them, we can often see in them the nature of our underlying maps. Our language, for example, is a very real indicator of the degree to which we see ourselves as proactive people.
The language of reactive people absolves them of responsibility.
“That’s me. That’s just the way I am.” I am determined. There’s nothing I can do about it.
“He makes me so mad!” I’m not responsible. My emotional life is governed by something outside my control.
“I can’t do that. I just don’t have the time.” Something outside me — limited time — is controlling me.
“If only my wife were more patient.” Someone else’s behavior is limiting my effectiveness.
“I have to do it.” Circumstances or other people are forcing me to do what I do. I’m not free to choose my own actions.
Reactive Language: There’s nothing I can do. That’s just the way I am. He makes me so mad.
They won’t allow that. I have to do that. I can’t. I must. If only.
Proactive Language: Let’s look at our alternatives. I can choose a different approach. I control my own feelings. I can create an effective presentation. I will choose an appropriate response. I choose. I prefer. I will.
That language comes from a basic paradigm of determinism. And the whole spirit of it is the transfer of responsibility. I am not responsible, not able to choose my response.
One time a student asked me, “Will you excuse me from class? I have to go on a tennis trip.”
“You have to go, or you choose to go?” I asked.
“I really have to,” he exclaimed.
“What will happen if you don’t?”
“Why, they’ll kick me off the team.”
“How would you like that consequence?”
“In other words, you choose to go because you want the consequence of staying on the team. What will happen if you miss my class?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think hard. What do you think would be the natural consequence of not coming to class?”
“You wouldn’t kick me out, would you?”
“That would be a social consequence. That would be artificial. If you don’t participate on the tennis team, you don’t play. That’s natural. But if you don’t come to class, what would be the natural consequence?”
“I guess I’ll miss the learning.”
“That’s right. So you have to weigh that consequence against the other consequence and make a choice. I know if it were me, I’d choose to go on the tennis trip. But never say you have to do anything.”
“I choose to go on the tennis trip,” he meekly replied.
“And miss my class?” I replied in mock disbelief.
A serious problem with reactive language is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People become reinforced in the paradigm that they are determined, and they produce evidence to support the belief. They feel increasingly victimized and out of control, not in charge of their life or their destiny.
They blame outside forces — other people, circumstances, even the stars — for their own situation.
At one seminar where I was speaking on the concept of proactivity, a man came up and said,
“Stephen, I like what you’re saying. But every situation is so different. Look at my marriage. I’m really worried. My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he reaffirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” I replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love — the feeling — is a fruit of love the verb. So love her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
In the great literature of all progressive societies, love is a verb. Reactive people make it a feeling.
They’re driven by feelings. Hollywood has generally scripted us to believe that we are not responsible, that we are a product of our feelings. But the Hollywood script does not describe the reality. If our feelings control our actions, it is because we have abdicated our responsibility and empowered them to do so.
Proactive people make love a verb. Love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self, like a mother bringing a newborn into the world. If you want to study love, study those who sacrifice for others, even for people who offend or do not love in return. If you are a parent, look at the love you have for the children you sacrificed for. Love is a value that is actualized through loving actions. Proactive people subordinate feelings to values. Love, the feeling, can be recaptured.