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Knowing Your Emotional Triggers

Becoming your most emotionally healthy self through personality study.

I remember the scene like it was yesterday. The night before our annual fundraising banquet and auction, the phone rang. The emcee we had worked with for months had come down with the flu. He would not be able to attend the event the next night, let alone rally the crowd to support the work of our nonprofit outreach organization.

I stood in my kitchen and gazed out the window at the early evening fog sifting in over the hills. I could feel stress rising up in me, a pressure-filled weight in my chest that rose up to my throat and stretched all the way to my armpits. A fearful part of me wanted to believe the worst: without him, the next evening would fail and flop. And if the night failed and flopped, then surely, I had failed and flopped as a leader.

But in that moment, the bigger, braver part of me chose a different route, perhaps for the first time in my career. Taking a deep breath, I chose to respond instead of react. Closing my eyes, I let the breath come over me, dispelling my anxiety and quelling the lies that fought for space in my head.

“Are you there? Hello?” he said into the phone.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I spoke.

“Yeah, I’m here,” I said. “Go get yourself a bowl of chicken noodle soup and take a nap. Take care of yourself. We’ll be fine.”

And I believed it, I really did. Had age finally seasoned me? Or after nearly a decade in ministry, had I finally learned how to not let my emotions drive my reply? While I don’t doubt either of those factors had something to do with it, I also think I had begun to understand my personality on a deeper level. I had learned to put words around my emotional triggers so I wouldn’t constantly react.

Knowing who you are instead of who you aren’t is key as a woman leader in the church—and part of knowing yourself also means learning to respond instead of react.

When I first began in ministry, I believed myself as seasoned as they came. I had been involved in the parachurch organization for ten years as a volunteer before coming on staff, so I understood the culture and nature of the mission. The position also wasn’t my first job out of college; I had spent the previous four years in the classroom as a high school English and leadership teacher. An experienced twenty-something grown-up, I felt I held the upper hand, even if it meant starting over vocationally.

But finding a holy balance in ministry also meant getting to know my deepest self. It meant learning to listen to the cues of my body in a job encompassing both head and heart. In like manner, it meant getting to know the emotional triggers inside me so I could serve the church in the healthiest way possible.

Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. Instead, I floundered. I reacted equally with tears and laughter and deflection alike. I shoved my emotions deep within, believing that less of myself meant more of Christ. Years would pass before I realized the detriment of my deficits, of what not knowing my needs and my triggers meant to my ministry and to me.

Come to find out, I wasn’t alone.

Pete Scazzero writes in The Emotionally Healthy Leader, “The emotionally unhealthy leader is someone who operates in a continuous state of emotional and spiritual deficit, lacking emotional maturity and a ‘being with God’ sufficient to sustain their ‘doing for God.’” Coach Matt Norman summarizes a recent podcast of Pete’s, encouraging us to understand our emotional triggers as key for our own leadership health:

First, identify emotional triggers. Do you have a tendency to overreact when you feel ignored or when your boss is trying to control you? Do you jump to conclusions when you feel blamed or when a parishioner is overly needy? Spend time thinking about your family of origin and earliest experiences to understand your responses to these situations. For me, the early signs of identification came through personal study to better understand my personality and how I am motivated.

Second, continue to do the work to emotionally mature beyond your triggers. As Max Lucado famously wrote, “God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be just like Jesus.” Simply identifying your triggers is not enough, and the deliberate work of moving beyond your triggers is…well…work. There are wonderful resources I’ll share to help you on your journey, and you might consider working more in depth with a therapist to further find the root of these triggers.

Finally, learn to appreciate the emotional triggers of others. Just as you’ve learned patience with your own emotional triggers, be sure to extend grace and give others the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps you need to remind yourself that God loves them more than you’ll ever understand. Practically speaking, Matt Norman advises creating a safe and “non-judgmental space for them to discover more about their own emotional attachments.”

For me, by identifying my own emotional triggers, I learned how to respond instead of reacting when unforeseen situations came my way. Also, by understanding my personality and motivations, I learned who I was—instead of who I wasn’t—as a woman in ministry. The following assessments were key to helping me understand myself:

The Enneagram. The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective and The Road Back to You are my personal favorites of the numerous books available on this subject. As a “Seven,” I am prone to busyness and can easily overextend myself. Impulsive with my words and actions, I have to intentionally build a rest of nothingness into my ministry schedule. This quietness taught me how to savor the moment and not respond to everything as an emergency.

The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)©. Under the MBTI, I identify as an ENFP—Extravert, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving. Just as I am curious and energetic, I am also easily stressed—and when I am easily stressed, I can tend to react instead of responding. Through this personality test, I learned that trusting my intuition helps me “become more serious, focused, ambitious and goal-oriented.” When I’m focused on the goal ahead, because I know where I’m going I tend not to flounder and my responses indicate an oft desired clear-headedness. In discovering your own indicator, you can better understand your own strengths and challenges, improving your own ability to respond appropriately even in the most stressful of situations.

The 5 Love Languages. In Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages, you’ll better understand that whether you’re single or married, you have a relational “love tank” that needs to be filled, extending both into the relational and the vocational sphere. Personally, when I understood my need for words of affirmation, I learned how to effectively communicate my needs to my supervisors: A hand-written note means the world to me. A word of praise will go a million miles with me. When my love tank is filled, I am better able to respond when unexpected moments of crisis arise.

Whatever it is for you, seek to understand your emotional triggers. Discover the flowers—and acknowledge the weeds—of your unique personality, in order that you might learn how to respond instead of reacting. After all, intense moments of crisis are bound to happen in ministry. By learning more about why you are the way you are—created perfectly in God’s image—you, too, can become your most emotionally healthy self.

Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Her first book, The Color of Life, released in February. You can connect with her on her website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

July16, 2019 at 8:30 AM

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