Event + Reaction Does Not Always = Outcome

Personal reflection session. Feel free to ignore.

I participated in a development session today and one of the ‘tools’ we were exposed to was the philosophy of personal responsibility by way of the following:

E + R = O.

Event + Reaction = Outcome.

That is, when something happens, it’s how you react to that event that is a decisive factor in the outcome from that event.

In general, this is a philosophy that I agree with. My Dad passed away when I was 15 years old and I remember consciously thinking at the time (long before I’d heard of the Chicken Soup guy responsible for today’s teachings) that Dad’s passing wasn’t going to be a defining factor in my life. Dad was probably the most influential person in my life at that point and while his death was something for me to mourn, it wasn’t mine to carry.

There are numerous situations where it’s perfectly appropriate to apply the E + R = O philosophy. In fact, it’s a handy tool to apply to most things that happen in day-to-day life and quite a few of the extraordinary things, too.

As we explored this theory a little more, however, I started to disagree.

(I’m like that sometimes and I have to say that it hasn’t served me well. It’s in my nature, however. If I see a hole in something and I feel it’s important enough, then I poke at it. And poke I did.)

As we applied this theory to various scenarios (and the theory’s subsequent parts, which I won’t go into here) it came across to me as a kind of veneer. Like a bright, happy wallpaper.

“OK, this person’s treating me poorly but the outcome of this situation isn’t up to them, it’s up to me.”

That might work once or twice in a situation that’s unlikely to reoccur. Like a chance encounter with an idiot at a bus stop, for instance. You won’t see that person again and there’s no need to let him/her ruin your day. Sometimes it’s better to just ignore it and move on. I get that. But what about those situations you face nearly every day/week/month that you don’t think are right? How is it right to just put up your happy wallpaper and pretend they don’t get you down?

Accepting that you can control every outcome by way of your reactions to an event is to accept responsibility for every outcome you’re involved in. And accepting responsibility for every outcome you’re involved in means that others aren’t responsible for their actions anymore. Our convenor today said that worrying about something you couldn’t necessarily influence was a sure-fire way to an ulcer, and I can see her logic. But surely taking responsibility for crappy situations that are repeatedly thrust upon you isn’t any better for your physical or emotional wellbeing.

If someone’s consistently being an asshat, is it your responsibility to control the outcome of their behaviour (as it effects you), or does there come a time when it’s their responsibility to maybe stop being an asshat? Sure, there are things you can do to mitigate such asshattery but when all is said and done, surely they need to know that their asshattic behaviour is having a detrimental effect on you and maybe the lives of those around them, too?

Isn’t that the other side of personal responsibility? And shouldn’t we have enough mutual respect to be able to talk about it without somebody feeling like a dweeb because they had to bring it up?

All thoughts welcome.

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  1. Well, there is the school of thought that suggests the best way to deal with a bully is to crack him one in the nose. That’s still a reaction, and maybe sometimes it’s the one that’s most effective? Sometimes being assertive is the way to go, right?

    1. In general I totally agree with this theory, by the way. Much of life can be better enjoyed by being adaptable and not letting minor things upset you. You can choose to act, think and live positively.

  2. Yes, nicely put.

    There’s a point where you can externalise responsibility by drawing attention, by whatever (appropriate) means, to the consequences of the actions of that other.

    The internalising of the responsibility is where the problems really occur.

    Of course the old “Serenity Prayer” applies.

  3. I’m very familiar with the “one size fits all” corporate seminar. You can do a search on their chapter headings and see which self-help book they took their ideas from.

    There’s no single strategy for dealing with “asshats.” Sometimes they can be ignored, sometimes you need to encourage them to dig their own graves, sometimes you need to deal with them head-on. I’ve even found that you can sometimes take them aside and point-out their behaviour. That’s particularly effective if they are compensating for social awkwardness, insecurity, or stress from other life circumstances. Those are things that we all feel to a certain extent, and being a jerk is a coping mechanism.

  4. Event: someone is being an asshat
    Reaction: put on happy wallpaper
    Outcome: that person is still an asshat

    Event: someone is being an asshat
    Reaction: let that someone know what an asshat he or she is (any way you prefer)
    Outcome: that person might reconsider his or her asshattery or might increase it.

    Either way, your reaction did impact the outcome. Maybe not how you imagined, but the theory still stands. Not much of a convenor if it can’t defend the theory he or she is preaching.

  5. Swade, I agree with you for the most part. The philosophy really boils down to ‘put on a happy face’ oftentimes. I reject that as a cure as you seem to.

    On the other hand, there is a thread of truth there. A great friend and former colleague of mine from California has such a great sense of nonchalance about the negatives (and they ARE negatives) that come his way. He gets riled up about the things that he chooses to get agitated about and lets the other stuff lie. When questioned he’ll complain like the rest of us, but he’s not emotional about it as most others are. I strive to emulate Richard in that way. It’s hard.

    There is ample evidence that the reactions that we have to affronts, unfairness and irritations from other people are deeply engrained in us through our heritage and are passed down many generations spanning even hundreds of years. Knowing that has helped me to curb some of my least desirable traits in the past 3-4 years. I’ve still got some way to go.

  6. I think the point of the philosophy is that you should recognise that people need to be handled in different ways. My job, sadly, greatly exposes me to more than the usual number of asshats and in most cases due to my winning personality and a not inconsiderable amount of training I can win them around. The percentage of utter and complete asshats is remarkably low. Perhaps they are just an asshat for the day because they wrote their car off or the kids are sick and they are strung out from lack of sleep.

    You decide the level of interaction you need and sometimes the reaction is to say goodbye to the person.

  7. While I was not at this seminar, perhaps the point is that many people react immediately to an Event, often negatively toward others or negatively turned inward (anger, stress, etc.), but if you stop, take a breath and consider how you want to react….that gives you a degree of power in the situation. It allows you to decide on the reaction you choose to have, including an awareness of the choice you are making. Either way, you are impacting the outcome, but as others above have said, sometimes your reaction choice is to ignore it, let it roll off, while other times it may be to stand up for yourself, take up the issue with the other person, etc. I think that is what you were getting at Steven, and it is very valid. That the range of your reaction can be broad if it reasoned and measured. (If the seminar did not acknowledge this point, then it is just “happy wallpaper”.)

    Of course, what you cannot control is how the other person will react. If he or she continues to react poorly, then you have another opportunity to choose how you will react. 🙂

  8. I agree with a lot of the comments, I don’t think it’s taking responsibility for the behavior of the asshats or the situation itself, its more that responding to a situation instead of reacting can make large differences in the outcome. My girlfriend says I respond while she reacts, pretty much true. I’ve learned that if I can respond to a situation I can then ignore it, steer it or even confront it as I choose, I control how much energy I feed into it. I think of it like a stream, I can just watch or walk away, I can pour a little or a lot of water in and increase the force, or I can shut it down. Whereas if I react I’m joining into the energy of the asshat/conflict/whatever (pouring water into the stream) and have much less control of the outcome and how it will affect me. In some stages of my life I’m better at responding than during others.