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Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Editor
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The Roots Of Reactivity
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- * 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
- * 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)
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
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
- This development occurs as individuals resolve various developmental conflicts.
According to the Eriksonian paradigm, these conflicts include the following.
||Possible Reactive Triggers
||Trust vs. Distrust
||Authority can't be trusted; Fear of bonding
Shame and Doubt
|I really can do it all by myself; I'll prove it. Watch me!
To be able to make and accept mistakes as part of learning
|Initiative vs. Guilt
Need: To be able to make significant,
|Sense of inadequacy when goals can't be realized;
attain personal goals.
|Can't work without "help" or external motivation;
lack clear sense of "self" and identity
Need: Test limits, learn independence
|Failures in relationships, isolation and alienation
healthy intimacy patterns
|Generativity vs. Stagnation
||Expectations and reality clash;
Need: To make a difference
beyond one's self
||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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- we will be reactive.
- Other leadership behaviors may also indicate proneness to reactivity. Such may
- * 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Roots Of Non-Reactivity
organizational health with another consultant at lunch I once
"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
- 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
- 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
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:56 PM