One of my favorite theories in social psychology is the one on reactance. I remember when I first heard of that concept in a lecture several semesters ago, I immediately thought, “Wow, this is so me!”
What exactly is reactance? Basically, it can be defined as an aversive state of tension you feel when you have the impression that your freedom of choice is limited, and this tension leads to overreacting against the limitation to restore your feeling of freedom. In other words: You want to have what you are not to have, and you do not want what you are to have.
Reactance occurs in a variety of situations. A classical example is the “do not think of a white elephant” situation. What do you think you will not be able to not think of if you are told not to think of a white elephant?
~ hmmmmm … ~
It is quite reasonable that other people can elicit reactance in you by telling you what to do in a certain situation, but you can also elicit reactance in yourself by putting a regimen of “shoulds” and “musts” upon yourself. A few common examples (that most of you may know from personal experience) are these.
- “I will not eat chocolate anymore.”
- “I have to exercize an hour every day at least.”
- “I should get some work done.”
What do you think is likely to happen? Well …
- You will not want anything more than chocolate.
- You do not even start exercizing because you could never keep it up for an hour anyway.
- You start cleaning the dishes, doing the laundry, or browsing the internet just to keep yourself from working.
By “shoulding” and “musting” yourself, you can easily undermine your own motivation up to a degree where you feel like you do not get anything done well anymore, and you will end up frustrated and angry with yourself. For this state of being, a friend of mine has made up the wonderful term “reactance victim”. The ironical (and in fact, tragically comical) consequence of this is that the urge to restore your freedom of choice has led to an even greater limitation of choice.
While reactance is not bad in general, it can be very inhibiting when you plan to make some changes for the better in your life. If your plans are expressed in a way that they seem to limitate your freedom, you will make yourself a victim of reactance, and then you can actually forget about your plans. So, what can you do to avoid reactance?
A funny strategy that was derived from reactance theory is counter-intuitive intervention. It goes like this.
- Tell yourself, “I have to eat that whole bar of chocolate now.” It is likely then that it may not be so appealing anymore to stuff yourself if you “have” to.
- Tell yourself, “I am not to exercize longer than 10 minutes.” But once you have started, you may get into flow because you do not have to, and feel motivated to go on for some more time.
- Tell youself, “I am allowed to finish this task, but not to do any more.” Then you may feel that things are getting done easier, and you can go on a little further.
You see, this strategy works via “forcing” yourself to do what you do not want, so you will actually be able to use your own reactance in a productive way, because you build reactance against the state you want to avoid. Another thing that plays a role is that you set such minimal goals that failure is rather unlikely to happen. You may not be able to do a full hour of exercize, but you can do just 10 minutes. You may not be able to stop after a few pieces of chocolate, but you can stop after half of the bar. And even if you cannot, you have not failed actually, because you just did what you told yourself to do. It is a win-win strategy.
~ this would be you – in any case! ~
If you do not want to motivate change in yourself, but in another person, the worst thing you can do – according to reactance theory – is to tell that person what he or she should do. You will get the opposite of what you want and just summon stubbornness and conflict. However, if you regard for reactance, you could offer opportunities instead of giving instructions, and be a role model to let the other person see the positive outcomes of the change he or she could benefit from.
Without knowing it, this is exactly what several of you have done for me – by leaving kind comments on my blog, making suggestions without pushing me, and just living your lives and thus somewhat becoming role models for me in the one or other respect.
I started this blog exactly seven months ago, in September 2010. Seven months of being a member of this wonderful and inspiring blogging community do not leave even the most desperate reactance victim unaffected! Several of you told me that you could relate to how I felt, that you liked my style, and that you enjoyed what I wrote. You cheered me up when I was struggling, or made suggestions what I could try out to find something that works better for me. Many of you have been so kind, supportive, and benevolent to me that it just blew me away. At the same time, you allowed me to partake in your own lives by reading your blogs and exchanging with you, and you have brought an amount of happiness and inspiration into my life I had never imagined. Gradually, this led to building up an honest motivation to let go of my unhealthy obsessions and make a change for the better. I am not yet finished at all, but I have achieved quite a lot in the past months, and compared to one year ago (and the years before), it is a difference like the one between night and day.
So, it is time for a thank-you round! (The following assortment is not at all sufficient, I just grabbed some of you to make a beginning …)
S (Extreme Balance) – You have been my best blogging friend from very early on. Since the time we had this endlessly long comment conversation on my recipe page, you had a place in my heart. Some of my favorite S moments … (There are many more!)
- when you detected that plugs in New Zealand had a “woe is me” face and wrote about your wine tasting and the flavors that could be tasted in the wine (I still giggle when I think of the “this wine is off” selection – rotten egg, onion, cauliflower, horse … that is absolutely it! – not to forget that you disdained that $42 chardonnay because it had citrus aromes in it )
- when you detected that your waffle iron has a face as well (it looks a little bewildered, I think)
- when you wrote about the little plushie lamb you bought for yourself
- when you were drowning in beans because they are such healthy and pricy staples
- when you baked gingerbread Ampelmännchen
Andrew (ajhblog) – At first, I did not think we had so much in common: You love to ride your bike and go for a good run, while I am not into exercizing at all (so far at least – I want to change that). But I was wrong, there are a lot of things we share: Being thoughtful about how we live our lives, and trying to be kind to the people who live with us. I am truly happy that I have “met” you (on the internet), and you have become quite a role model for me! I really, really want to get into exercize like you did (perhaps not that much, but a little at least!) and I must admit that I truly admire what you have achieved!
Christine (Merf in Progress) – With you, I feel that I have met a like mind! And I so much appreciate how you try to live well not only for yourself, but also for your family! Your post about when you tried to feed good food to your little one made me laugh so much! And I love how you adjusted exercizing to your individual needs! You are really a friend to me by now!
Jos (Delightful Taste Buds) – You are, for sure, my greatest inspiration when it comes to cooking! Your dishes look so incredibly delicious – like your baked ginger and garlic whole chicken, your roasted chicken with caramelized shallots and Chinese steamed fish, or your baked salmon with chimichurri sauce – and they have inspired me to try things myself I would never have dared to make otherwise. Thank you so much!
Lindsay (Cotter Crunch) – I love your optimism and positive energy, and your posts about the benefits of challenging the focus have gradually got me into rethinking some of my habits, and made me want to change them for the better! I think this worked out so well because you are such a source of inspiration for me! And I also love your wonderful recipes!
Kristina (Spabettie) – Food-wise, your blog is definitely “hard” for me to visit! (You know I am always in serious danger to screw up my laptop by drooling into my keyboard too much. ) However, there are a lot of other things I love about you (besides the fact that you make wonderful dishes and incredibly green smoothies), like your kindness, wit, and humor. And not to forget Basil! *wag wag*
Ameena (Fancy That … Fancy This) – Your comments always show such a kind and compassionate heart! What makes it even better is that you have that incredibly ironic humor on top of it! The wire folder or the Louboutin Barbie shall never be forgotten! And nobody else makes post tags like, “a good mom doesn’t fiddle around with a camera when her daughter is in the bathtub“. You always make me smile.
Heather (Heather Eats Almond Butter) – I know you do not read my blog, but I have read around yours quite a lot, and your story about how you found the diet that works for you has inspired me a lot! Thank you so much for sharing this! It really helped me to understand the importance of sufficient healthy fats in my diet.
There are more wonderful people I should mention here in detail … too many for just a single post, indeed. So I will just refer to my blogroll, there you can find them! Please check out their blogs, if you have not done so yet!
Which goals are you tackling at the moment, or would you love to tackle? And what do you think of reactance theory? Are you maybe a reactance victim yourself?