From emotional reactor to intentional decision-maker

4 steps you can take and questions you can ask

Recently we asked two therapists to share advice on what to do and say when a young person discloses sexual abuse. Today we welcome Megan Lundgren back to the blog as she concludes a two-part series offering professional, practical advice for leaders responding to students who are hurting. Let’s nurture empathy for young people as they follow Jesus toward a transformative faith.


As much as we try to suppress, ignore, minimize, dismiss, numb, and distract from our painful emotions, feelings exist as a constant under the current of every relationship. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who works with church leaders, I have seen emotions hurt and heal, depending on whether they speak truth or lies.

Terry Hargrave, the founder of Restoration Therapy and professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Fuller Seminary, pioneered a process of emotional regulation with Sharon Hargrave called The Four Steps. Church leaders who use The Four Steps gain understanding of where their pain is rooted and ground themselves in truth, or the reality of the present. This process also includes a shift from emotional reactivity to intentional decision-making. For youth leaders who feel lost in their painful emotions or unsure of how to responsibly steward them, here are four steps you can take:

1. Say how you feel

How can church leaders respond to their own feelings of pain? The first step youth leaders may consider is to boldly name their emotions in their rawest form. Using the most vulnerable language possible, confront the emotion head-on by naming precisely how you feel.

For example, rather than saying, “I feel frustrated,” or “I feel upset”, try picking a more specific, vulnerable word instead. Typically, our most intense emotions are rooted in a desire to feel loved and safe. In contrast, when people are in pain they may perceive themselves as unloved or unsafe. These emotions might be more specifically felt as being unworthy, insignificant, alone, disrespected, inadequate, unknown, out of control, defective, or devalued—just to name a few.

Emotional awareness can be challenging: identifying the feelings of pain underneath stress or frustration may leave some leaders feeling drained. Gratefully, our emotional lives tend to be cyclical. What does this mean? When church leaders pinpoint one of their particular feelings of pain, there is a good chance that this feeling is a constant in their lives. If they can work to understand the roots of that feeling, they may be more equipped to respond to that emotion when it cycles back.

Questions for reflection:
  • Once you have identified one or more of your feeling words, reflect on when you first remember feeling that way. What is the origin of this emotion? Perhaps when you were in a more helpless or less resilient time in your life, you felt this particular pain—and the feeling stuck. Intense childhood experiences are thought to form neural pathways, which create “highways” for certain emotions. Rather than feeling every painful emotion at the same intensity, we tend to have a few painful thoughts that replay like a recording.
  • The origin stories of our pain can be processed in counseling sessions, through journaling, or in dialogue with loved ones. What is your plan for addressing the origin of your typical feelings of pain?

2. Call yourself out

Once church leaders identify their feeling of pain, they have begun the process of taking responsibility for their feelings. The next step is to take that further: in humility, leaders can boldly name the destructive coping mechanisms that they typically react with when they are in pain. The four most common destructive coping mechanisms result from the instinct for “fight or flight” reactions:

  • blame others (i.e., it’s your fault I’m in pain),
  • shame self (i.e., it’s my fault I’m in pain),
  • take control (i.e., of others or situations in an attempt to create a sense of safety), or
  • withdraw (i.e., escape).

By humbly naming temptations or tendencies for one or more of these destructive coping mechanisms, church leaders will be less likely to habitually, mindlessly engage in these patterns.

Questions for reflection:
  • Where did you learn your destructive coping mechanism? Church leaders may find that they mimic the patterns of their parents or veer towards coping mechanisms which are reactive against the destructive coping mechanisms that their parents modeled (e.g., someone with a controlling parent might be tempted to withdraw).
  • What are the consequences of your destructive coping mechanisms? How do these habits hurt yourself or the people you love?

3. Name what’s true

Feelings are often logical based on a person’s life experiences. For instance, it makes sense that a youth leader may feel defective if they work in a critical environment. So is the feeling of “defective” speaking truth about the youth leader? I would suggest that feeling is not reflecting the whole truth of the youth leader’s identity. They are made in the Imago Dei, and thus worthy of love regardless of their work performance or feedback.

The process of emotional regulation is an extension of mindfulness—the practice of grounding oneself in the present moment. When a church leader experiences a particularly sensitive feeling of pain, they may subconsciously be reminded of the other times they felt that same feeling of pain, thus intensifying their emotional experience. When this occurs, the individual is not just dealing with the present emotional trigger, but also the cumulative emotional triggers from their past as well.

The intensity of “emotional flooding” may be felt physiologically as increased blood pressure, which in turn reduces blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that assists in judgment and anticipation of consequences). The net result is that when a person is emotionally overwhelmed, they are not operating from a position of sound decision-making.

So what can a church leader do to ground themselves when they experience distressing emotions? They can name what is true about their identity, their relationship with God, and their relationship with others.

Tweet this: “What can a church leader do to ground themselves when they experience distressing emotions? They can name what’s true about their identity, their relationship with God, and their relationship with others.”

Some examples of the emotional regulation process so far might look like this:

“I feel inadequate, and I’m tempted to shame myself. But the truth is I’m working hard to serve my church to the best of my abilities.”

“I feel devalued, and I’m tempted to withdraw. But the truth is I’m a beloved child of God, and God’s Spirit works through me.”

If a church leader is struggling with negative feedback and feels devalued, an authentic truth statement may include that current reality: “The truth is, I am devalued in that my contributions have not been outwardly recognized, though my status does not define my worth in God’s eyes.”

For example, if a church leader is experiencing distance in their marriage, they may name the reality of their isolation in that relationship, while also naming the truth of their capabilities: “The truth is, I am disconnected from my spouse, but I am capable to seek counseling and support for my marriage.”

Just as a church leader’s particular feelings of pain tend to cycle and repeat, and their destructive coping mechanisms repeat as habit, so may their “truth statement” often be repeated. The general truths about one’s identity and one’s relationships with God and others do not often change—church leaders can ground themselves in these truths again and again.

Questions for reflection:
  • When you consider your particular feelings of pain, are they speaking truth about your identity, God, your choices, your resources, and your community? It is important not to sugarcoat, but rather to name what you genuinely believe to be truth.
  • When you consider your particular feelings of pain, are they telling the whole truth, or merely a partial truth? It is important to try to create a truth statement that “widens the lens” to tell the whole story, since pain often fixates on particularly difficult situations.

4. Choose your next step

In the process of emotional regulation, church leaders have an opportunity to make intentional choices based on what they believe is true about themselves, God, and their relationships with others. Rather than instinctively acting on how they feel, leaders make a discerning decision about whether their feelings are speaking the full truth about themselves, God, and their relationships with others. Finally, they are free to make purposeful decisions based on this reality.

  • Take a look at your truth statement. What would you choose to do if you knew for certain that statement was true? What intentional decision would you make if you were grounded in that truth?
  • How does this decision contrast with your typical coping mechanisms?

The overall experience youth leaders can anticipate when they engage The Four Steps is increased awareness about their most vulnerable emotions, a desire to explore the origins of their deep-rooted pain, and relief for a productive process to engage when they feel emotionally flooded. Further, the lives of these leaders will proclaim one of the most monumental tenets of Christian faith: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8.32, NASB).

 

Resources for further study in Restoration Therapy:

www.RestorationTherapyTraining.com: offers national trainings by Terry Hargrave, Ph.D. and Wib Newton, Ph.D. for pastoral leaders.

Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy by Dr. Terry Hargrave

Restoration Therapy Tools and Resources for Working with Anxiety by Rhett Smith