21: Thinking and Working Proactively

One of the great principles of healing is to over- come whatever is bad by applying good ideas and qualities. In the Bible (Romans 12:21), it is stated as the process of “overcoming evil with good.” This means we overcome injustice by promoting the principles and activities of justice. We overcome illness by exercising healthy qualities and behaviors. We cure our anger with love and forgiveness. Sadness must be transformed by cheerfulness; fear must be conquered by confidence and courage.

The logic of this principle is sensible and easy to grasp; however, few of us seem to rely on logic to manage the difficult areas of life, our dark moods, or our sense of frustration. Attacking “the problem” is often the first way most people approach what challenges their comfort and security. Worse, it is the only approach for many people. Thus, we find people who respond only with hostility toward situations and people that oppose them. Others react with deep disappointment when events turn out to be less than desirable. Instead of working to overcome distress, such people inadvertently add to their suffering by reacting negatively and retreating into the dark levels of thought, attitude, and expectations. They fail to recognize the value of constructive thinking, methodology, and acts.

“Proactive” is a term that refers to taking the ini- tiative to act constructively instead of reacting to events. For most of us, our automatic emotional reactions will respond favorably to situations that provide comfort and reward. If an event is annoying or hurtful to us, however, our automatic reaction will range from disappointment to fear or anger. So far, we are not doing any great damage to our welfare or status. It is our choice of behavior after we become angry, anxious, defensive, or saddened that causes us embarrassment and damage.

The principle of proactivity is easy to explain in ways that make it highly desirable for use in our daily activities. Unfortunately, the lure of our anger, fear, disappointment, and guilt is often too much to stop us from being hostile, anxious, or discouraged in our immediate attitude and behavior. As we react in these ways, great ideas and methods are often killed in the rush to defend ourself. The result is more sabotage to our well-being.

If we are to become proactive in how we respond to ordinary events and situations about us, we will need to learn how to approach all major events—good or bad—with a new perspective. This is the key turning point that lets us shift from habitual reactiveness to proactive thinking and attitudes. For example, the common reaction to a disappointing conversation with someone is to wonder: what is wrong with this person? Why is he being so rude or disrespectful? Why is he trying to upset me? How will this damage me and my situation? Why am I always being kicked around like this? This is how we turn on and sustain habitual negative reactions to common events each day.

It is not unusual for people undergoing professional counseling to spend years investigating and analyzing why they are so angry, depressed, or anxious. They analyze those who have annoyed them and endlessly ponder their sick motives. Then they list all of their symptoms and connect them to their memories of neglect and abuses by others. At the end of years of this self-examination, they are able to speak calmly and clearly of their distress, but over ninety percent still are depressed, angry, or anxious. They may “understand” why they are less than they could be, but this knowledge does very little to heal the underlying dark moods and the many ways they poison their life. They have learned only to accommodate distress, by adjusting to a permanent state of mild anger, sadness, and anxiety. This is what can happen when we fail to use proactive methods to solve our personal misery.

We can interrupt this automatic tendency to react in annoyance or frustration to disturbing events. However, to continue in a constructive mode of thought and attitude, we will have to recognize and embrace the alternative to automatic emotional reactions. This alternative requires that we recognize and stop our keen interest in exploring what is wrong, why other people are being so difficult, why this situation is so annoying, or why we are so unlucky. These types of inquiries will invoke only answers and psychic energies that add to our misery. For instance, if we wonder why a certain person seems to dislike us, we will be able to discover or invent reasons why they do, thereby giving us more reasons to be irritated. Consequently, we widen the difference between us, and add hostility and disappointment to the mix. This contributes nothing to our ability to resolve any conflict we might have with this person.

Likewise, if we are deeply disappointed at some setback in our work or an important relationship, we might begin to wonder what is wrong, why our life is so difficult, and how did we get stuck with such an uncooperative person or difficult job? Once more, the answers and energies we invoke by asking this line of questions can only add more misery to our distress and do nothing at all to help us overcome these difficulties.

Even people who know the value of being proactive still lapse into defensive reactions to unpleasant events. The turning point occurs when we adopt a different perspective and motivation. Instead of being defensive, we need to honor our reputation for competence, confidence, and power, by wondering how we can resolve conflicts, break through resistance, overcome doubt, and find better ways to establish trust and cooperation.

Instead of wondering why others fail to agree with us and support our plans, we need to wonder how we can do a better job of explaining the virtues of our ideas. Instead of wondering why our task is so difficult, we need to wonder how we can make some creative changes to improve our efficiency and effectiveness. Instead of wondering who is sabotaging us and why they are so nasty, we need to speculate about what we can do to reduce antagonism and create more harmony.

This is the portrait of how proactivity works. It emphasizes the search for ideas, perspective, and methods to reduce conflict and resistance and also build better understanding, communication, trust, and cooperation. The expectation, plans, intentions, and methods are all designed to be helpful and constructive—not defensive or hostile.

Since great ideas and methods do not work by themselves, we must follow up by applying these ideas and methods in our daily activities. We need to recognize how often we engage in our old habits of attacking what is wrong, griping about what is missing in our life, and complaining about the various difficulties and hardships we bear. We need to appreciate how all of these approaches can serve only to make things worse. The more we know about what is wrong, the more we will be frustrated. The more we know about why certain people are so mean or stupid, the more we widen the gulf between them and us. The more we dwell on our difficulties, the more depressed and helpless we will feel. These are not good choices.

When we think and work proactively, we are concerned only about what we can do to understand and manage problems in helpful ways. We are focused on what we can do to communicate better, develop trust, be more productive, and overcome resistance. All of this begins with what we do to initiate changes. Waiting for a stubborn friend to have an attack of gentleness will not happen until we explain the reasons why cooperation will bring many benefits. Waiting for a rude person to become polite and agreeable will probably not happen until we make overtures of friendliness and trust. Waiting for our life situation or career to become less challenging will not occur unless we learn to be more creative and efficient.

Working proactively means we begin with the expectation to work with all situations to find a perspective and method of engagement that uses all the virtues of wisdom, strength, confidence, cheerfulness, goodwill, gratitude, and competent coping skills. This is how we overcome conflict with harmony and meet our challenges with wisdom and goodwill.

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