When my kids spilled a drink at the table, I used to get so mad! It was super frustrating to me. A few years back, I started to ask, why do I get so mad at that? After all, I have seven kids. It’s kind of part of the deal. In fact, at one point, we had six kids aged seven and under. The odds of drinks being spilled were extremely high. Moreover, if the drink spilled, we could simply clean it up with a towel. It really wouldn’t hurt anything. Why did it bother me so much?
For a long time, I had a hard time figuring that out. I really didn’t know what story I was telling myself. I couldn’t figure it out, but I knew that it was dumb. So, I made the effort to try and not get so mad at spilled drinks. I decided that I would not get angry any longer when drinks were spilled at the table. I would just get a towel and clean up the mess. It was hard. I had to check myself regularly, but I made progress, even though I really didn’t know why I reacted so strongly to these things.
It’s amazing how hard it can be to understand ourselves. It takes a lot of work. Yet, when we try to help others, we are bringing ourselves to the table. Our emotional life will have a strong effect on the way we counsel others.
How does this work out? Let me give a couple of examples. Imagine a strong extrovert, someone who loves to get out there and talk to people. Now, let’s say that someone who is also an extrovert comes and complains about someone who doesn’t want to go out and prefers a lot of quiet and time at home. Without self-consciousness, it’s easy for the extrovert to just join the side of the other extrovert. “I can’t believe people are like that,” he might say.
Or imagine someone who has had a lot of really bad relationships in his dating life. When someone comes and talks about their relationships, he will easily react negatively to what he hears. This may color his advice, and it may not actually reflect reality. He may view dating relationships much more suspiciously than he should.
That’s the sort of thing that we need to figure out. We need to know how we see the world and react to it. We want to help other people in a way that is in accord with reality not our imagination.
Here are a couple of ways to think about this.
One simple way is to do a personality test. I’m not convinced that any of the personality tests represent exactly the tendencies in our nature, but they do help us process our own tendencies. Some options to do this are Jordan Peterson’s personality test, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or the Enneagram.
I have personally found the Myers-Briggs particularly helpful. The distinction between the N and the S made sense to me. The N or Intuitive tends to be big picture. The S or Sensing tends to be more detail oriented. My N is the most extreme of the four polarities in my personality profile. So, if someone asks me how to get to Knife Works from Sevierville, I will say head north a few miles, and you’ll see it on your left.
These type of directions will not do for a strong S. My parents are strong on that side of the scale. They would often ask me questions, and I would give them a big picture answer. Then, they would keep asking me questions until they had the details that they wanted. In the past, I thought they were just trying to torture me. I realize now that this is just a different way of thinking about things. It has enabled me to be more patient, accept the differences, and even learn from them.
Here’s an example of how this knowledge paid off. One time a woman called the church asking for directions. I probably said something like, we meet in the campground about a mile south of the downtown. Like my parents, she continued to ask questions. In the past, I might have grown impatient. However, realizing that she was coming from a personality type closer to my parents, I walked through the details with her, giving them like I knew my Mom would want them. “You go three blocks. Then, you will pass the Sleep Inn and the Flapjacks. You turn right after the Flapjacks. Go about 1/4 of a mile down the hill. There you will see a sign pointing to the left. Turn left into the parking lot, and you are there. You will see a building on your left as you enter the parking lot. That is where we meet. Enter the doors, and someone will greet you. There are two doors inside the narthex. The side of our worship space is the door on the left.” I could tell from the conversation that this woman felt loved and cared for. She did come to church the next day with a big smile on her face. That’s how understanding our own tendencies can help us connect with and encourage others.
Understanding Your Reactivity
The second way is to think through your own emotional reactivity. What this involves is thinking through what makes you angry, upset, anxious, or withdrawn. From there, you begin to work on it by asking yourself what story you are telling yourself. You can do this through reflection, conversation, or journaling. I personally found journaling very helpful because you don’t have to have a person present and you can get similar results to processing things with other people.
When it comes to the spilled drink, reflection helped me see a broader pattern in my life. Oftentimes, I would react (and still do!) when little things go wrong. I can get angry at the little obstacles that get in my way when I am trying to accomplish a goal, such as an obstacle to having a nice dinner with my family. When things go wrong, I often have a strong negative reaction.
What did I do with this observation? I learned to begin to change my thinking to see that making mistakes and having obstacles are just part of life. Most of the time, they’re not that big of a threat. They’re just part of a process of living. That’s the theory that I’m trying to pound into my brain. Sometimes I get it and do well, and other times I lapse into my old patterns.
How does this affect counseling? At some point in my discussion with people about their problems, I may see where they could and perhaps should go. Then, I notice obstacles that they put in the way. They may not want to go where I am leading them. I have seen that this can get me frustrated. This is not helpful to the process of counseling, which requires patience and giving people space to process things for themselves. That’s where I need to see my own reactivity to obstacles in my way. That’s where I need to work on myself.
Counselor and Pastor Ronald Richardson says our family of origin gives us a sort of “emotional aura” that we carry with us into adulthood. I have certainly found this to be true. A lot of our reactivity is shaped in our family of origin.
This is what I did my Doctor of Ministry work on. You can read that here or read a lengthy summary here. This work helped me to do significant reflection on my own family of origin and how it continues to be a big part of the story of my emotions.
To do some reflection on your family of origin, just begin to think about how you interact with your parents and siblings. What do you do when things get intense? How do you react? Chances are you react in a similar way with those outside your family when things get intense. For example, did you feel intimidated or abused by someone in your family? It’s likely that when someone comes at you in a strong way, you will react in a similar way to how you reacted to that person, either attacking them or running away from them. Depending on the situation, this or may not reflect the reality of the relationship.
You can learn a lot about your way of interacting with others by asking questions like the following, do you know who your Grandparents are? Do you know their names? Do you know what their relationships with your parents were like? Have you talked to them one-on-one? These sorts of questions open up a lot of doors to self-understanding.
One tool that you can use to help you with this is the genogram. The genogram is a sort of extended family tree. There are a lot of online tools to help with this. Find a few of them here. This will begin a long process of thinking through the reactions that are embedded within you.
What are you bringing to the table when you counsel others? That’s the key question that we need to confront if we are going to help others. Sometimes our emotions reflect reality, but a lot of times they don’t or don’t reflect it very accurately. We need some work to even begin to understand our emotions. This takes careful thought, counsel from others, and time. It’s in many ways the work of a lifetime. As counselor Dan Allender put it, “It takes a lifetime to discover exactly how our past shapes our future so we can live wholeheartedly and passionately in the present, but we can begin. We can seize the present with greater insight and vision” (Dan Allender, The Healing Path, 185). The more we do, the more we can move forward with “greater insight and vision” and become a better resource for helping others.