Am I overreacting? How can I tell? It depends on what part of the picture you look at. Your emotional reaction might be out of proportion to the individual event that triggered it. However, when you look at the larger picture you can usually find that your emotional response is understandable given a number of other sources that aren’t immediately obvious.. When trying to figure out if you are overreacting don’t just look at what triggered your emotions. There are usually several sources of emotions that contribute to your reaction making it bigger than necessary.
Mary is on vacation with her husband. She asks him to move next to her so she can get a picture of the two of them together. He says, “No, I don’t like the way I look in pictures. They never come out good.” Mary is hurt. She protests that he takes pictures with his kids (from an earlier marriage) but then lets it go. She continued to stew in upsetting emotions for much of the afternoon. In her mind she is debating him and trying to win the argument as to why he should take a picture. In the imaginary debate his side of the argument doesn’t’ change and she still loses. During that time Mary realizes she is letting some passive aggressive comments fire back at him. Eventually she gets back to enjoying the day but several hours of enjoyment is lost. With some self reflection she is notices the levels of anger, frustration, and hurt underneath the thoughts. Mary begins to feel that she was overreacting but can’t figure out why.
Mary’s emotions aren’t directly about taking the picture together. There are other sources of emotion that got triggered. I ask Mary what it means when he says no. It turns out that her mind attached a lot of meanings she wasn’t immediately aware of. It included elements of him saying no to being close, and doing what she asks. Once she asks herself what it means when he says no a few answers rattle off.
1) He doesn’t want to make memories with me.
2) He doesn’t love me as much as his kids.
3) He doesn’t love me.
4) He doesn’t appreciate me.
5) He doesn’t want to be with me.
She was unaware of the beliefs about meaning and only noticed the emotions. That is why it seemed like an “overreaction.” It wasn’t until she inquired within did she uncover these beliefs about meaning. Her husband responded to the picture request, but what Mary heard from her own mind were five associated rejections. Her unconscious beliefs also ignored the explanation he gave about not liking how he looked when her mind inserted her own.
Was she overreacting? If we look only at the picture request, then it is easy to say she was “overreacting”. However, Mary really did feel all those emotions so they must have come from somewhere. If we declare that it was an overreaction it is equivalent to dismissing and ignoring the beliefs and meanings that are at the source of these emotions. Ignoring these other sources of emotions is like repressing them and only causes them to build up pressure and burst out later.
It is clearer to say that Mary had really good reasons to have all those emotions and her husband’s response was probably a very small part of them, or not one of them at all. Mary’s emotional response is understandable when we include how many emotions her belief system adds to the situation.
Our conversation continues into an exploration of these beliefs. Mary shares about other times she feels rejected in the relationship. Mary begins to notice how the meanings are applied in an unspoken subtext by her mind and create more emotion than the situation would call for. Mary then drops into an associated memory and tells a story about growing up and how her mom gave more attention and love to her sister than to her. She cited a couple examples of feeling less then her sister because of the disparity in how they were treated. She felt rejected by her sister and mother in those memories. I asked how that affected her relationship with her sister and how do they get along now. She pointed out that they never got along. The still hardly talk. Mary began to notice that she still had resentment towards her sister even though it was the mom that wasn’t equitable with the attention and love. Underneath that resentment Mary still felt rejected and hurt as she talked about these childhood experiences.
In my experience, these old stored emotions very often come out in our other relationships decades later. Whether or not they do, it was worth making an inventory of these old beliefs and letting go of the old hurts with her mom and sister from 25 years earlier. Upon reflection it was quickly clear that the resentment she was carrying towards her sister didn’t pass the common sense test. It was the mother doling out the attention and love differently. The sister at 10 years old was innocent of the wrongdoing. Mary decided she needed to revisit the relationship with her sister and make amends. My guess is that when Mary isn’t carrying around these feelings of hurt in her sub-conscious anymore she won’t have as much emotion under pressure waiting to burst out at any possible trigger.
So when Mary’s husband said no to Mary’s request, what was the source of her emotional reaction? It seems initially that at least five fold of the emotional reaction was due to what her beliefs applied as the meaning to his response. Then we can add some more emotions of hers arising from associated rejections from her mother and sister. These other emotions probably include resentment, frustration, anger, and hurt. These were the kinds of emotions behind her passive aggressive comments that Mary was trying to repress. When we inventory and look at all the emotions and beliefs we have a different way to measure what Mary was reacting to.
In my point of view Mary was not overreacting. The amount and intensity of emotions she felt were appropriate for her history, belief system, and emotional wounds from her past. Mary’s emotions weren’t just about the picture, they were about the larger picture. Some of Mary’s emotions and beliefs have been created and stored in her body for 30 years. When Mary is aware of the larger picture
We will know more once Mary has a chance to inventory these beliefs and associated meanings and dissolve them. Then she can measure the size of her emotional reaction and see how much it has changed.
In the meantime we can safely say that Mary was not overreacting. Her emotions are there from very valid sources. Even if unconscious false beliefs and repressed emotions can’t be seen or measured, they are still valid sources. It is when we address these other sources of emotions, such as from our belief system, and emotional wounds of our past that we can make lasting change in how we feel. When we do make these changes we discover that we were reacting far more than was necessary.
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