Only Proactive People Can Genuinely Love Others, Reactive People Can’t (updated)

(The following is abridged and adapted and modified from Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change”)

Between stimulus and response, human beings have the freedom to choose—but only *if* we develop and exercise the four uniquely human endowments that make the freedom to choose possible. And these four uniquely human endowments are:

1. Self-Awareness

2. Imagination & Forethought—the ability to think and create in our minds alternatives beyond the present situation and anticipate consequences and results.

3. A Conscience—a deep inner awareness of right and wrong, of the universal life principles that ought to govern our behavior, and a sense of the degree to which our thoughts and actions are in harmony or disharmony with them. Having a conscience also means that we are able to look at situations fairly and objectively and neutralize and or account for our own biases.

4. An Independent Will –the ability to act based on self-awareness, conscience, imagination and forethought, and free of all other influences.

Even the most intelligent animals have none of these endowments. They are programmed by instinct and or training. But they can’t change their training or programming because they’re not even aware of it.

But because of our unique human endowments of self-awareness, imagination, forethought, a conscience, and an independent will, we can write new programs for ourselves totally apart from our instincts and training. This is why an animal’s capacity is relatively limited and a human being’s is much much less limited.

But—but—if we live like animals—meaning, if we live from our own instincts and unexamined conditioning and programming and out of our collective memory—we too will be limited.

The epiphenomenalism-determinism paradigm comes primarily from the study of animals—rats, monkeys, pigeons, dogs—and human beings who are neurotic and or psychotic. While this may meet the criteria of some researchers because it is measurable and predictable, the history of mankind as well as our own self-awareness tell us that this map doesn’t accurately describe the territory.

Our unique human endowments lift us above the animal world.

And it is the extent to which we exercise and develop these uniquely human endowments that determines how far we will elevate ourselves above the animal world and how well we will fulfill our uniquely human capabilities and potentials.

Between stimulus and response lies our greatest power—the freedom to choose—but *only if* we succeed in deeply developing our uniquely human endowments of self-awareness, forethought, imagination, insight, conscience, and an independent will.

In discovering this basic principle of the nature of human beings, Viktor Frankl began detailing a very accurate self-map from which he then was able to lay out the first and most basic habit of highly effective people in any environment—the habit of proactivity.

The word proactive means more than merely taking initiative, it also means taking responsibility; it means that we as human beings are responsible for our own lives—our behaviors ultimately are a function of our decisions, not our conditions. It means that we can learn to subordinate feelings to values and principles, and that we can learn to subordinate impulses and defer gratification for the sake of something more beneficial and meaningful down the road.

Look at the word responsibility. Response + ability—the ability to choose one’s response. Highly proactive people—meaning better-differentiated and emotionally more mature people—recognize that capacity and responsibility. Reactive people—meaning less differentiated and more emotionally immature people—reject or deny this capacity and routinely refuse to accept responsibility for themselves and their lives and their choices and instead blame circumstances, conditions, or their conditioning/upbringing for their behavior. Highly proactive people don’t—they do not blame circumstance, conditions, or their conditioning for their behavior. Rather, their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on carefully thought-out values and principles, rather than a product of their feelings, based on conditioning and their conditions.

Because we can, by nature, be proactive, if our lives are still a function of our conditioning and conditions, it is because we have, by conscious choice or by default, or because we are neurotic or psychotic, abdicated our capacity for responsibility and chosen to empower our conditioning and conditions and emotions and allowed these things to control us.

In doing so—in making such a choice, or in refusing to choose differently—we remain reactive and we continue not to emerge or lift ourselves from the animal kingdom.

Reactive people are by definition people who are excessively affected by (reactive to) their environment. If the weather is good, they feel good; if it isn’t, it affects their attitude and performance.

Proactive people, however, essentially carry their own weather within themselves; they create their own inner weather. Whether it rains or shines outside makes little to no difference to them. They are value driven; and if / since their deepest value is to be a good and decent and productive person, it will not matter whether the weather outside is conducive to that or not.

“In the midst of winter, I found within myself an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

“For the man sound in body and serene of mind there is no such thing as bad weather; every day has its beauty, and storms which whip the blood do but make it pulse more vigorously.” –George Gissing, from the chapter “Winter,” in “The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft,” 1903

Reactive people are also affected excessively by their social environment, by the “social weather.” When people treat them well, they feel well; when people don’t, they become defensive or protective or aggressive or hurtful. Reactive people build their emotional lives around the behavior of others, empowering the weaknesses and pathology of other people to control them.

“Hurt people hurt people.” – from the motion picture “Greenberg”

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. Rather I say to you, love your enemies, do good to them, and lend expecting nothing in return.” – Luke 6:32-35a

The ability to subordinate an impulse to a value is the essence of being a proactive person (as well as being a well-differentiated person). Reactive (less differentiated) people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values—carefully thought out and mulled over, consciously chosen, and internalized values—that are based on timeless and universal principles. Proactive people are still influenced by external stimuli—whether physical, social, or psychological—but their responses to those stimuli are a value-based choice rather than a feeling-based response.

This way of looking at life and oneself can be very difficult to accept emotionally—a bitter pill to swallow—especially if we have years and years invested in explaining away our misery in the name of circumstance or someone else’s behavior. But doing so—learning to look at ourselves and our lives in this way, meaning as a function of our decisions and choices—is what allows us to truly grow and evolve as persons (differentiation) and to create a better and different future for ourselves. Because until a person can admit deeply and honestly that “I am who and what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” and accept that level of responsibility for oneself and one’s life, that person cannot truly say, “I choose otherwise.”

Holding people to the responsible and proactive course is not a demeaning or insensitive thing to do at all; to the contrary it is deeply affirming. Proactivity is a part of human nature, and the proactive musculature is there in each and every one of us, although in some of us it may be dormant. Thus by respecting and affirming the proactive, responsible, and forethoughtful nature of people, we are providing other with at least one clear, undistorted reflection from the social mirror.

(Abridged, adapted, and modified from Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change,” pp. 69-76; block quotes are also my addition)


Real love is not a reactive or merely emotional experience. Genuine love is a conscious conscience-driven activity based on a deeply internalized conscious decision to define ourselves, *through our actions*, consistently as a certain type of person and to orient ourselves towards another human being (and towards human beings in general) in a very specific way, namely, as that of a genuinely Loving human being.

To be a genuinely loving human being and to genuinely love another means to put ourselves and our deeds and thoughts continually under the microscope and to continually scrutinize ourselves and our actions to see if they pass the test of being genuinely “Loving.”

To do this, we must have inner clarity—meaning our self-awareness and self-examination must be honest, which is to say, it must be directed by our conscience. If it isn’t—if our self-awareness is not directed by our conscience or our concern for what is true and objective and right—then our self-awareness will be subject to self-deception and spin. Our inner world and self-reflection will be warped and distorted, subject to our narcissism, pride, weakness, and avoidance—avoidance of anything that might trigger us and make us feel ashamed, inferior, guilty, not good enough, et cetera. Which is what a working conscience is going to do—monitor us and call us out on our own bs, it’s what’s best in us monitoring and calling us out when we’ve acted from what’s worse in us—which will likely make us feel ashamed, guilty, not good enough, inferior, et cetera. And if we aren’t courageous enough, or if we aren’t interested enough in the truth and in growing up psychologically, then we may become very adept at ignoring our conscience, drowning out its still small voice, or refuting its observations in a myriad of illegitimate ways.

All of which will compromise our capacity to love others, as well as ourselves.

A large part of genuinely loving another means intending to show up as our best self to our relationship with another. And then actually doing so.

The same goes for loving ourselves.

To love ourselves, we have to develop the sincere desire / intention to show up as our best self (not our perfect self, but our best self; not our 100% A+ self, but our 93-98% A caliber work hard study hard really applying ourselves self) to all facets of our life, to not settle for mediocrity or even just good enough from ourselves (mailing it in, C or even B level effort, especially when we’re capable of more), but to push ourselves in a healthy (meaning non-perfectionistic) way to be our best or near-best in whatever we do and to make sure it’s something that is really important to us (that it passes the deathbed test).

Thus a big part of this type of Love—practiced on ourselves or on another or others—requires that we subordinate some of our impulses, feelings, moods, and emotions to certain values and principles.

All of which requires self-awareness, discernment, perspective, self-discipline, prioritizing, and focus, and that we learn to keep our emotional reactivity more and more in check (through meditation, therapy, self-study, self-observation, reading decent books, et cetera).

To the extent that we are reactive—driven by emotion and impulse, prone to people pleasing, highly susceptible to being moody and to acting out on our moodiness, prone to give in to our wants and desires and preferences and limitations without much thinking or awareness or thought of consequences of doing so, and living life essentially in an unreflective way, meaning far removed from contemplating the existential and perennial questions in life (and then allowing the fruits of these contemplations to form and direct our behaviors and choices)—we are not capable of actually loving another, let alone ourselves.

Most people are like falling leaves.  And falling leaves cannot genuinely Love others.  to truly Love, one has to have within oneself an inner guide and path.

Most people are like falling leaves. And falling leaves cannot genuinely Love others. To truly Love, one has to have within oneself an inner guide and a path.

Our lives will be an exercise in capriciousness, randomness, in blowing whichever way the wind blows us. We will be the “falling leaves” that Hesse describes in “Siddhartha,” we will be what Frankl calls “a plaything of circumstance,” we will be the epiphenomenalistic deterministic zeroes-in-an-empty box that Skinner and the Behaviorists described, we will be wild and wacky reflexes of the world, driven and determined by our surroundings and never have elevated ourselves much above living like the rest of the animal kingdom.

Love is an act of will—meaning love is both an intention and an action. Love is as love does. When we love someone our love becomes demonstrable or real only through our exertion—through the fact that for someone or for ourself we take an extra step or walk an extra mile. Real love is not effortless. To the contrary, it is effortful.

That love is an act of will also implies that real love is a choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love. No matter how much we may think we are loving, if we are in fact not acting lovingly, it is because we have chosen not to love. On the other hand, whenever we actually do stretch and exert ourselves in the cause of spiritual growth, it is because we have chosen to do so: the choice to love has been made.

Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the feeling is present. If it is, so much the better; but if it isn’t, the commitment to love, the will to love, still stands and is still exercised and acted upon.

True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed.

(Abridged from M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled,” pp. 83 & 119.)


“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality or ‘personhood.’ No one can become deeply aware of the very essence of another human being unless he deliberately chooses to love him or her. It is through the act of consciously loving another that a person is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, the person sees that which is potential in the other, that which is not yet actualized but still ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and what he should become, he helps make these potentialities come true.”

– Viktor Frankl, very slightly modified from Man’s Search for Meaning,” pg. 134


I posted a previous version of this post here.

About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in "Man's Search for Meaning", "Siddhartha", Conscience, Conscious Love, Courage, Critical Thinking, Differentiation, Emotional Maturity, Hermann Hesse, Immature Love, Intimate Relationships, Love is a Choice, Love is a Decision, Love is Not a Feeling, Luke 6:32-35, M. Scott Peck, Mature Love, Mental Health, Perspective, Proactivity, Reactive, Real Love, Responsibility, Spiritual Growth, Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Examined Life, The Road Less Traveled, Truth, Viktor Frankl, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Only Proactive People Can Genuinely Love Others, Reactive People Can’t (updated)

  1. Pingback: Conscience «

  2. Pink Ninjabi says:

    A humbling reminder of how much better I need to be, instead of how much better I hope my circumstances to be, especially this past week of reactive motions, you have inspired me to that proactive peace within again. Thank you ever so much. I couldn’t have found this without your sharing of thoughts.

    • John says:

      Hello Pink, you are most welcome. That’s so much the heart of what I write and share on this blog–the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) reminders of how much in life depends on us, on how if we do the work and improve ourselves in terms of our level of awareness, our level of emotional self-control, our capacity for critical discerning thought, our moral goodness and nobility, then as we become better, life becomes better–it reflects our own growth and self-development/self-improvement.

      Thanks for reading, Pink, and for the reblog.

      Warmest regards,


  3. Pink Ninjabi says:

    Reblogged this on Pink Ninjabi and commented:
    A reminder of how my reactivity destroys me, and how my proactivity employs me.

    • John says:

      Hello Pink, Thank you for the reblog. And well-put–reactivity does usually does not serve us well, and proactivity–especially thinking critically and discerningly and leading a very examined and thought-filled life based on sound moral principles–usually serves us and other well. (Although at first, when the world is not ready to hear it, it usually meets with a fairly strong [and sometimes even violent] amount of opposition.)

      Warmest regards, and thank you again for the reblog!


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  6. Second time I’ve read this, but well worth it! I really needed some reminders (especially that perfection is not the same as being your best self)!

    • John says:

      Hello PS,

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. I’m so happy you found this well-worth the second read. I do a lot (A LOT) of re-reading. I don’t know how many times I’ve re-read books (or at least large parts of books) like “The Road Less Traveled,” “Passionate Marriage,” “Walden,” Emerson’s essays, “Letters to a Young Poet,” books in the Bible, et cetera. I just don’t think one reading of anything that has substance or depth to it will do it justice–especially since we are changing and growing and experiencing new things, thinking new thoughts, coming to new realizations. Re-reading is a definite good (and necessary) thing, in my opinion.

      And, agreed, perfection is definitely not the same as doing one’s best! Two totally different things! One is within our control–we can always control and monitor our own effort; the other is outside of our control–getting a 100% on a test is not just a matter of preparation, but also of some amount of luck; but getting an A on a test should be well-within our range of possibility if we study properly and prepare well, et cetera. To me, this is analogous to the difference between perfection and doing one’s best. We can’t always control the outcome, but we can control the effort and the preparations.

      Thanks again, PS, for reading and for commenting!

      Kindest regards,


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