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The Roots Of Reactivity

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 277

It can do more damage than an absence of vision, a lack of planning, a shortage of volunteers and a woefully-large budget shortfall. Worst yet, the damage which may result from its use can be sudden, swift and insurmountable.
What is it? It's the "R" word: "Reactivity." 
 
Reactivity Indicators

Numerous things can indicate the presence of reactivity. Perhaps some of the most frequent indicators of reactivity include:
* Explosive anger.
* Furious rage
* Impulsive desire for vengeance and retaliation;
* Being out of control ("losing it");
* Sudden silence
* Shock
* Intense Non-Verbals
* Written "Position" statements (in letters, etc.)
The indicators of reactivity, however, vary by individual personalities. Extraverts and introverts may not react the same way. Sometimes their response is consistent with their predominant "normal" personality. Extraverts, for example, may demonstrate extraverted reactive responses while introverts may react in a more introverted manner.
 
But not always.
 
Positive Reactivity
 
The nature of reactivity is that it represents an explosive surge of emotive energies. When reactive energies are positive, the positive energies generated result in unexpected bursts of joy, happiness, profuse hugs and sometimes tears.
 
This kind of reactivity results from wonderfully unexpected good news. These kinds of experiences are the unforgettable events of life and ministry: the miraculous recovery, the unexpectedly successful program attendance, and the realization of so many of God's blessings in our lives and others which are simply "beyond our wildest dreams."
 
Negative Reactivity
 
By the same token, when reactive energies are negative, the negative energies generated result in unexpected bursts of anger, vengeance and other random, uncontrolled displays of defense mechanisms. Like positive reactivity, negative-incited reactivity is also memorable. One brings overwhelming joy; the other overwhelming pain.
 
What all reactivity shares--whether positive or negative--is the sudden virtually "instinctive" reflexive emotional response to the overwhelming and unexpected. Reactivity also shares an even more important element: it is personal. This means that one only becomes reactive when they are personally involved. This subjective aspect of reactivity is probably the most critical. When individuals experience overwhelming and unexpected events in a personal way, their responses will be highly subjective.
 
Factors Affecting Reactivity
 
Numerous factors can affect the relative reactive responses.
 
1) Fatigue: When tired, for example, some may not have enough energy to react or respond to any stimulus. Fatigued, others may not have the energy to contain their feelings which, in this state, will likely be negative. Still others, having expended enormous amounts of energy to attain a goal, will break out in laughter and celebration...even though extremely tired. These and other examples simply point to the highly subjective nature of reactivity.
 
2) Drugs and Medications: Some medications have side effects which may trigger receptivity. These medicative items may include everything from caffeine to blood pressure medications. Insufficient or overdosed amounts of various medications can trigger anxious reactions where one might normally be non-anxious.
 
3) Physiological Factors: Weight gain or loss or other physiological changes can affect reactivity. Unfortunately, many of these may go unnoticed. Something as simple as an inability to stay awake may indicate thyroid disorders.
 
Inability to sleep for uninterrupted intervals of at least 90 minutes for extended periods of time deprive individuals of the needed "REM" (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Allergies, changes in activity levels (e.g. ceasing a vigorous exercise program) can also trigger fatigue-related factors which heighten the potential for reactivity.
 
Most important here is to recognize that unrecognized and untreated physiological changes do increase risk factors for reactivity.
 
4) Relational Factors: Relationships may be influenced just as much by intimacy patterns as by changes in cerebral chemistry. Indeed, changes in normal cerebral chemistries influence relationship patterns in a multitude of ways.
 
Whatever the causes--frustration, grief, feelings of insignificance, defensiveness, overwhelm, depression, etc.--otherwise "healthy" relationships may turn sour as normal interactions are affected by changes in cerebral chemistries in one or both parties. Of course, one cannot discount the possibility that changes in one partner may trigger stress-related changes in the other.
 
Reactive responses may not always follow the "Second Law of Thermodynamics." Not all stress responses create an "equal and opposition reaction" at least on the surface. The invisible components of reactivity can often go deeper and persist longer than the visible components. 
 
5) Seasonal Factors: Prolonged or extended periods of time in which higher than average energies must be maintained may also heighten reactivity. For Pastors, such times can be during the busy "seasonal" workloads which nearly always characterize the pre-Christmas (Advent) and pre-Easter (Lent) times. Due to the necessity to work on these holidays the normal ebb and flow of days off is interrupted. Energy levels decline as pressures mount. The result is an increased potential for reactivity.
 
6) Situational Factors: Reactivity is also situational. Some individuals are highly reactive when no one's watching. Others, however, may tend to higher levels of reactivity in public settings. Stressful situations can also help trigger reactivity while others, able to stand up non-anxiously in quasi-cosmic stress soon afterwards may become uncontrollably reactive with little things.
 
Reactivity In Professional Context
 
Reactivity is so easy to recognize but usually only after it erupts. Recognizing when individuals are developing reactive responses is the more difficult part. Verbal and non-verbal cues can arise so suddenly that often individuals have no idea that the about-to-react one is feeling vindictive, retaliatory, victimized, pressured, pushed, overwhelmed, fearful, angry et al.
 
Displays Of Reactivity In Structured Settings
 
Counselors may have distinct advantages in this regard. The general non-threatening, unconditional love approaches which form the basis of many approaches allow counselors to delve into reactive issues in a more measured, intentional manner. In the confidential, non-threatening formal setting, skilled and experienced counselors can often vary their therapeutic probing. This enables counselors and other helping professionals to reduce the risk of reactivity, to deal with the causes and fallout of reactivity.
 
Outside of this formal, security-structured setting, these advantages quickly vanish. Even the most skilled counselor may have difficulty dealing with the reactivity once released. The ability to control one's own reactivity weakens in public settings. As chain reactions of reactivity occur, things may quickly go out of control. Reactivity has taken hold.
 
Reactivity in Blurred Settings
 
Perhaps this points to the necessity for pastors to put appropriate boundaries on counseling. So frequently individuals will just happen to talk to the pastor in the hallway, in the mall or when they just happen to "pass by" and share personal issues and stressors. Though intended to be a friendly, caring gesture of ministry this may fuel reactivity.
 
As the number--and intensity--of such "casual" interventions occur, the "normal" pastoral relationships experiences an anxious transformation. Normal boundaries for pastoral care become blurred. Individuals may have trouble determining whether the pastor is in counseling mode or in a more light-hearted casual mode. Defensive mechanisms may begin to arise.
 
At a time when least expected, pastors may find friendly, supportive and enthusiastic leaders for whom they have provided pastoral guidance suddenly becoming reactive. Personal attacks, unfair characterizations and other unseeming reactive interpretations arise. What has occurred? The boundaries of the "counseling" relationship have been confused.
 
Without a more formalized structure, the spontaneity of pastoral care has triggered defensive reactivity. If this reactive response is met with pastoral reactivity, there's trouble. If met with a less threatening response, there can be hope.
 
Public Displays Of Reactivity
 
Leaders in more public situations, unlike counselors, do not have the luxury of focusing on just one face in the crowd. They don't have the advantage of direct, unhindered inter-personal feedback. A key task of leadership is to be able to direct the whole while effectively managing the parts with empathetic direct and indirect support.
 
Leadership styles do affect reactivity. Some leadership styles exude confidence, charisma, and control. Others exude compassion at the expense of any compulsion to move at all. Still other leadership styles--perhaps the most toxic--are marked by their reactivity.
 
Those leadership styles which are adept at establishing the necessary supportive environment to allay reactive responses may be the most effective in bringing each member face-to-face with that they fear most: change. Perhaps it is in this regard that leaders need what Maxwell calls, "The Confidence That Convinces."
 
Reactive Responses
 
Reactive responses are simply strong manifestations of defensive mechanisms. Some of these include...
 
1) Denial-Based Reactions. The anonymous author of Twelve Steps For Adult Children (Friends in Recovering, Julian, California, RPI Publishing, pp. 46-47) indicates the following types of denial.
* Simple Denial: Pretending that something does not exist;
 
* Minimizing: Acknowledging a problem but refusing to see its severity;
 
* Blaming: Recognizing the problem but ascribing the responsibility to others;
 
* Excusing: Recognizing the problem but denying one's own or another's responsibility for it;
 
* Gossiping: Recognizing the problem but, by a creative combination of denial reactions (e.g. blaming, excusing, minimizing, dodging, flight, etc.) ascribe the cause and responsibility for the problem to others.
 
* Generalizing: Dealing with a recognize problem by avoiding specific, personal and emotional components of the particular situation or condition;
 
* Dodging: Changing the subject to avoid threatening topics;
 
* Attacking: Becoming irritable, angry, or aggressive when mention is made of existing conditions in order to avoid discussing the pain of a situation.
 
* Flight: Any escapist action intended to physically or emotionally distance oneself from the pain of the problem.
2) Defense-Based Reactions: Reactivity also occurs when one's control is threatened. Areas of control are often perceived as being essential for to secure one's sense of well-being. Defense-based are subjective and situational.  Defense-based reactivity may occur in the face of...
* Environmental Threats: Reactivity may occur when individuals are wrested from their environment, or the environment in which they are accustomed to be in changes, they may become out of control. 
 
* Positional Threats: This occurs when one's position, standing, or recognition in any social organization (family, churches, organizations et al) significant to them is threatened, one may erupt with reactive responses directed to bring control.
 
* Entitlement Threats: Sometimes violent eruptive displays of reactivity may occur when individuals feel as if something they have earned has been taken away. This may include relationships, things, power, position, perks, recognition, a voice, etc.
 
* Personal Threats: Reactivity is often a defense mechanisms designed for self-preservation. Whatever the reactive response, it's goal is always to reduce the overwhelming pain in the reactive person. These actions may be constructive or destructive. They may also included actions of self-sabotage.
 
* Threats To One's Being: Often the most painful attacks are those which attack, belittle or minimize one's value or contributions. When such threats occur, even those with relatively healthy self-esteem will be confronted with the need to respond appropriately. If they don't, pain may overtake them.  Reactivity responses are ways by which individuals deal with pain.
3) Bonding Dysfunction-Based Reactions: Adult children from troubled families or homes characterized by chronic dysfunctional bonding patterns (e.g. unhealthily fused or unhealthily isolated) often have dysfunction-based reactivity reactions. These are due largely to issues such as:
 
* Low Self-Esteem: The general rule of thumb is that the intensity of their reactivity is in inverse proportion to their feelings of self-esteem. The higher and more explosive the reactivity response, the lower the reactive one's self-esteem.
 
The anonymous author of The Twelve Steps for Adult Children describes the effects of low self-esteem.
"Feelings of low self-esteem...cause us to judge ourselves and others without mercy. We cover up or compensate by trying to be perfect, take responsibility for others, attempt to control the outcome of unpredictable events, get angry when things don't go our way, or gossip instead of confronting an issue." (p. 11)
 
* Approval Seeking: These reactivity-prone individuals are noted by any of the following.
- easily intimidated by angry people;
- wishy-washing and compromising  
- extreme susceptibility to personal criticism;
- terrifying fear of rejection or abandonment; 
- tendencies to offer inappropriate defenses and explanations for actions;
- perfectionism which tries to control anyone and/or anything which might cause anxiety;
- extreme, unquestioning loyalty;
- doing anything possible to win others approval and minimize other's criticism;
- undifferentiated, performance-driven, life-style;
- "rescue" behaviors;
- inappropriate hyper or hypo responsibility; 
- inability to form healthy, intimate relationship bonds.  

* Poor Boundaries: Reactivity is often an indicator that one is unclear about where one ends and others begin.

Reactivity And Codependence
 
That fact that codependence and reactivity are related is of no surprise. So many of the negative-charged emotive dynamics in family, congregational and other organizational systems display characteristics of codependence. "Codependence" is best described by the following DSM-III criteria.

Diagnostic Criteria For
Co-Dependent Personality Disorder

A. Continued investment of self-esteem in the ability to control both oneself and others in the face of serious adverse consequences.

B. Assumption of responsibility for meeting others' needs to the exclusion of acknowledging one's own.

C. Anxiety and boundary distortions around intimacy and separation.

D. Enmeshment in relationships with personality disordered, chemically dependent, other co-dependent, and/or impulse disordered individuals.

E. Three or more of the following:

1. Excessive reliance on denial
2. Constriction of emotions (with or without dramatic outbursts)
3. Depression
4. Hypervigilance
5. Compulsions
6. Anxiety
7. Substance abuse
8. Has been (or is) the victim of recurrent physical or sexual abuse
9. Stress-related medical illnesses
10. Has remained in a primary relationship with an active substance abuser for at least two years without seeking outside help.

Reactivity And Personality Type
 
Personality types also shape one's sensitivities and reactions to reactive stimuli.
 
Cholerics, known for their fierce tenacity "get the job done" become reactive when the task at hand is hampered, delayed, frustrated, or destroyed. Sanguines, noted for their extroversion and broad-base of relationships, tend to have a reactive sensitivity to rejection. Phlegmatics, comfortable amid the security of a small group of trusted friends, may become reactive when their routine sources of affirmation are threatened. Melancholies, always needing to be sure that there's "a place for everything and everything is in it's place," become reactive when things are perceived out of order.
 
Those familiar with the Meyers-Briggs Temperament Inventory (MBTI), the Enneagram and other popular personality assessment instruments may find that the more detailed personality type descriptions may help pin-point other areas of reactivity.
 
Of course, value systems, personal preferences, and other innumerable factors may also affect reactivity. For this reason it is important for individuals to learn both to recognize those things which trigger their reactivity and how to control their reactivity responses.

Exploring Reactivity's Deeper Roots

One of the most clear and convincing indicator of reactivity's deeper roots is reactivity's strong, unbridled emotive response. Regardless of what form reactivity takes, reactivity is rooted in the belief that individuals can control outcomes.
 
Reactivity is rooted in control, blurred boundaries, and in fear. Such fears include the fear of failure, rejection, ridicule,  loneliness, feelings of incompetence, of not being recognized for accomplishments et al.
 
The Developmental Connection
 
Often these fears are directly related to developmental issues as described by Erikson's "Eight Stages of Development." Briefly stated, these stages describe how individuals need to develop various pillars of self-esteem and development at various age levels.
 
This development occurs as individuals resolve various developmental conflicts. According to the Eriksonian paradigm, these conflicts include the following.

Eriksonian Developmentally-Related
Reactivity Triggers

Age Developmental Issue Possible Reactive Triggers
Infancy Trust vs. Distrust Authority can't be trusted; Fear of bonding

Need: healthy parental bonding

Early Childhood

(1-3 years)

Autonomy vs.
Shame and Doubt
I really can do it all by myself; I'll prove it. Watch me!

Need: To be able to make and accept mistakes as part of learning

Pre-School
(3-6 years)
Initiative vs. Guilt Imperfection; Laziness

Need: To be able to make significant, proactive decisions

School Age
(6-12 years)
Industry vs.
Inferiority
Sense of inadequacy when goals can't be realized;

Need: To attain personal goals.

Adolescence
(12-18 years)
Identity vs.
Role Confusion
Can't work without "help" or external motivation; lack clear sense of "self" and identity

Need: Test limits, learn independence

Young Adult
(Ages 18-35)
Intimacy vs.
Isolation
Failures in relationships, isolation and alienation

Need: healthy intimacy patterns

Middle Age
(Ages 35-60)
Generativity vs. Stagnation Expectations and reality clash;

Need: To make a difference beyond one's self

Later Life Integrity vs. Despair Despair, hopelessness, loneliness, in face that one has not made a difference

Need: Sense of fulfillment that life had a purpose in touching others

Resource: Corey, Gerald (1991) Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (Fourth Edition). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing

 
Reactivity's Deepest Root
 
Reactivity is most deeply rooted in mankind's nature. Whatever its form, reactivity is always the unhealthy response of one corrupted by original sin.
 
Genesis Three describes the Fall into sin. Perhaps the most illuminative perspective by which to read it is from the perspective of reactivity. The moment the woman "saw that the fruit was desirable," she sinned. Having sinned, fear permeated her entire being.
 
Her response to that fear was the development of denial responses. The woman wasted no time implementing denial responses. Sharing the fruit with the man was a reactive action of denial. Using "Simple Denial" and "Minimizing," she likely convinced the man that it was "OK."
 
When they discovered the shameful realization of their nakedness, both became engaged in other reactive blaming behaviors to evade, shift and deny responsibility in any way possible. One hardly gets the impression that these reactive responses were pre-meditated. They were borne of fear-driven reactivity. Had God not intervened, their reactivity likely would have resulted in the fulfillment of God's words, "You shall surely die." 
 
Further reflection on the reactivity makes one wonder. Were God's words, "In the day you eat of it you shall surely die" a threat? Or were these words God's warning that the inevitable consequence of eating the fruit would be to start an escalation of reactivity that would eventually cause them to destroy themselves?
 
Given Adam and Eve's reactivity-born blaming, it's not hard to imagine that the latter is just a possible as the former.

Leading Among Reactives

Perhaps the worst thing about reactivity is that it is real. It's everywhere. It's in our world, our denomination, our ministry, our church, among our leaders and our members. The most constructive strategy is to deal with reactivity where it needs to be dealt with first. Ourselves.
 
To the extent that we are reactive we, like Adam and Eve, are leading ourselves and those who follow us to nothing less than certain-"you shall surely die"-death. To the extent that we think that we seek to ...
* control God's will,
* have to be perfect,
* can't rest,
* have to take responsibility for others' actions or inaction,
* manipulate others by various means of "persuasive" coercion,
* gossip about others,
* complain that we don't' get our way,
* don't offer respect and obedience to trustworthy denominational overseers and other ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical authority,
* offer irrational loyalty in undeserved levels to various causes,
* give our lives up as victims to help others,
* overly responsible for others, and
* demonstrate inability to deal with uncertainty, discomfort and anxiety in constructive ways,...
we will be reactive.
 
Other leadership behaviors may also indicate proneness to reactivity. Such may include...
* poor communication;
* inability to delegate key tasks to others;
* inability to take risks;
* overwhelming, paralyzing fear of criticism;
* inability to formulate and communicate a long-term vision;
* inability to proactive leadership stance;
* extreme defensiveness;
* inability/unwillingness to deal with hard issues;
* lack of "staying power" in conflict; and/or
* the extreme opposites of any of the above.
One of the most difficult parts of reactivity is that the reactive one may not know they are being reactive. Then, when other loving, trusted and supportive individuals point out their reactivity, the reactor intensifies the reactive response. Anger, blame, belittling and other reactive behaviors follow.
 
This also explains the great frustration of those overseers, brothers and sisters in ministry who try to assist those who refuse appropriate, spiritual support, admonition and correction. It is by no means a rare occurrence when overseers find themselves the object of unfair reactive criticisms. They know what is happening but they cannot deal with it.  
The Search For Significance
 
Whatever the anxious response, reactivity always has as it's goal the protection of one's significance. When others attempt to wrest away this most important part of ourselves, the response is reactivity.
 
But it need not be. Too often Christians--and even Christian leaders--base their significant in earthly things. This often includes "their" ministry. They base their self-esteem on external accomplishments, accolades, etc. These can include...
* size of their church;
* whether their church is growing or dying;
* the "flashiness" of their ministry program;
* the regular, positive feedback of people to their preaching;
* the realization of their (oops, "God's") vision for their church;
* what others think of them and their family;
* how much better they are than others (e.g. pastors, ministry staff, members et al).
When one's significance is based on any of these types of things, watch out! It is these things which Jesus warned, "moths can eat and robbers break in and steal."   When one gives "all their heart, all their mind, and all their soul" to their ministry, the painful, but telling question is, "What do you have left for God?"
 
The message of the Gospel is clear. We have absolutely no significance apart from God's calling to us. Without Christ's grace we are "Lo-Ammi", i.e. "no people." The essence of the Gospel is that God never has based our significance our our own works. There is nothing we can do, win, earn or achieve that will bring significance.
 
Nothing we do, the writer of Hebrews wrote, pleases God without faith. All too often, one's own reactivity is the greatest indicator that one's faith is based on a desire for significance which, in its ultimate form, denies faith.
 
The line is drawn. It is unmistakable. Either our significance is based on what a good pastor we are, how well our ministry is doing, and other such temporal things. Or it is based on Grace alone.
 
Those able to put away reactive responses are those who realize that only God is in control. Those not able to do the same will find out sooner or later what their reactivity really shows: that they, not God, are in control.   
 
Broken-ness: The Beginning Of Reactivity's Cure
 
The only way that the issues which propel reactivity can be constructively dealt with is if one's corrupted, reactivity-prone will is broken. Often the only way this happens is through intense, personal pain.
 
Whether it be the pain of failure, the pain of loneliness, the pain of futility, or the pain which says, "Is that all there is?" it is this pain which is often God's loving invitation to brokenness...and renewal. 
 
Amazing as it it, often it is those who claim to be "spiritual leaders" or "men or women of God" who most resist this brokenness. When they come face-to-face with these issues, all to often they respond with...reactivity.
 
Reactivity And Church Conflict
 
Congregational conflict in many denominations is higher and more frequent than ever. A reason for this may be that Christians are less willing to experience the pain of being broken, humbled, and renewed for God's service. This proposition raises several items for consideration.
1) Is there a relationship between the growing disuse of confession and absolution in the Christian Church and the growing reactivity?
 
2) Is the growing frequency and severity of conflict God's calling to His Church to counter the reactivity with a Gospel call to brokenness and transformation? and
 
3) Are the called ministers of God willing to experience the pain and transformation of brokenness so that they can lead those in their ministries--and beyond--to the same transformation?  
Roots Of Non-Reactivity

        Discussing organizational health with another consultant at lunch I once
        remarked, 

"Organizational health is not so much affected by the severity of the reactivity but the standing of the reactive one." 

The aftermath of the "Feeding of the 5,000" was a defining moment in Jesus' ministry. As he watched thousands turn away and express disapproval and rejection, He was not reactive. Faced with the reactive response of the thousands who turned away from Him, Jesus then turned to His only remaining disciples. "Will you also leave?" He asked.
 
One of the reasons Jesus asked this question was to test His disciple's reactivity. Would they follow the crowds? Would they risk and give up their approval by the crowds and other significant individuals and follow Jesus? Were they willing to face their reactivity, face the pain, and simply let go, let God and follow Jesus? Were they really His disciples?
 
Nathaniel's response was telling. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life!" Lord, he confessed, there is no significance apart from You. 
 
What is it that you are reacting to? For what reasons might you be reactive? There is no need to be reactive. There is no need to fear. Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we remain non-anxious and non-reactive. We "tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not over power us" Luther wrote.   
Be Confident, Not Reactive

Allied World War II General MacArthur once addressed his troops.

"The enemy is in front of us! The enemy is behind us! The enemy is to the right and to the left of us! They won't get away this time!"

There's no need for reactivity. We have a non-reactive King of Kings who leads our charge. Whatever the pain, the rejection, the devastation He's there. He says, "Fear not those who can kill the body but not the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell."

Such non-anxious response is not merely the mark of good leaders. It's the hallmark of grace-based faith. We don't need to be in control. We don't need to be reactive.
 
All we need is the confidence of knowing that God is in control. What's your reaction to that? Fear, doubt, disbelief...or joy?!
 
Thomas F. Fischer 

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:56 PM