“How can I talk to you when you get so upset and overreact like this?” “I know I’m too sensitive, I just can’t help the way I react when this stuff happens.” It’s not uncommon to hear people accusing others or themselves of being too sensitive, getting too upset or overreacting. Being told that we’re overreacting does not make us feel any better and does not advance us toward a resolution to the problem. 

Easy as 1, 2, 3

To begin, we need to understand that this ‘reaction’ which we find to be so objectionable is not a one-dimensional response to an event, but is made up of at least three key components—feelings, conclusions and behaviors—and it’s important to address each one separately. 

Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood

When an unpleasant event occurs, we respond on an emotional level. We feel feelings. We may feel hurt and angry, threatened and afraid, shame and embarrassment, violated and betrayed, helpless and inadequate. Perhaps the biggest mistake we make is that we tend to believe the feelings are the problem. We tend to judge the feelings as wrong, inappropriate or too strong. The feelings are not the problem. Another person’s feelings alone cannot hurt you, no matter how intense they may be.

The science lab

In addition to responding on an emotional level with feelings, we respond on a cognitive level by sizing up the situation and drawing conclusions. Like scientists, we observe, record and interpret data and make conclusions about what appears to be happening in the moment: “I see, you didn’t call me, you’re late and in a bad mood. Obviously you don’t care much about me.” Then we often generalize to the macro level: “Apparently relationships are not going to work out for me so why should I even try?” 

Unlike feelings, which are neither right nor wrong, conclusions can be accurate or inaccurate. Feelings are either present or not. We can accept them as they are. But conclusions are drawn, crafted, put together by us so it’s best to do so carefully and not over-interpret the data. Inaccurate conclusions can be dangerous as they can set the stage for the third piece of our reactions, the behaviors we choose.

Obedience school

Beyond the emotional and cognitive components of a reaction, is the behavioral. These are the things we do or don’t do, actions we take or don’t take. Although these behaviors may manifest within seconds of the feelings and conclusions, it’s important to understand that these behaviors do not just happen, they are things we choose to do or not do. Of the three components of a reaction, it is the behaviors which can be most problematic and which we are usually objecting to. We decide whether we slam down the phone or wait for an explanation, whether we give the friendship another try or write the person off, whether we continue to work on our relationship struggles in general or give up completely. When we are hurt by another person’s reaction, it is usually their behavior which is hurting us.

Graduation day

If you feel like you or someone else is overreacting, try to separate the reaction into the three parts of feelings, conclusions and behaviors. Try to accept the feelings as they are, however intense, without judgment. Consider carefully with yourself or the other the accuracy of the conclusions being drawn. Pause and evaluate the wisdom of the behavioral choices being made. Whether talking to yourself or another, you might say: “I understand and appreciate all of your feelings. I don’t quite agree with all of the conclusions you’ve drawn here. I’m okay with some of the things you’ve done, but not okay with some others.”

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Lacie Slezak @ unsplash.com