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  • Writer's pictureJulie Love

Don’t Overreact!

From the Archive: February 2018

It was one of those days. Finally home, I tried to open a bag of chips. The bag tore, spilling chips onto the floor. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I stomped the chips, jumping up and down on them for several seconds. My children came running, to see what was happening, and found me, slightly out of breath, with a scattering of finely ground tortilla chips all around me. “I feel much better now,” I told them.

Was that an overreaction? It certainly would look like one – throwing a middle-aged tantrum over a handful of spilled chips? And if that was all I was reacting to, it would have been. But that wasn’t all that was going on. It’s important to note that the immediate trigger we see is almost never the only reason for a person’s reaction. You ask a basic question, and the other person replies with an exasperated tirade – they aren’t just reacting to you, but also to the last ten people who all asked that same simple question.

There is no such thing as “overreacting.” Everyone always reacts precisely in proportion to what they are actually reacting to. So if a response seems excessive, it’s good to take a moment to recognize that there’s a lot more going on there than you are aware of. They may look like they’re reacting to you, but they’re also reacting to the bad traffic, to the fight they had with their spouse that morning, to the cold they’re fighting off, to the fact that you remind them of their mother…

Frequently, these other invisible details are so strong, they nearly eclipse the current situation: you tell a child they did a good job, but they are still awash in the myriad times people just like you told them they did poorly, and the deafening echo of their own internal voice scolding themselves for always screwing up… so they react as if you just insulted them. Or the stress of taking a test has raised their heartrate to the level it was at when their parent was abusing them, and their brain reads this as a sign there’s a nearby threat, so when you approach them to see if they need any assistance, they respond as if you are attacking them.

Of course we aren’t mind readers, there’s no way we can know what is feeding an unexpectedly strong or apparently disconnected response. The key is to simply acknowledge that there is something else feeding it. When someone’s behavior doesn’t make sense, ask them, gently: “I see you are upset; help me understand what is going on right now.” If they seem to have heard an insult you didn’t say, don’t get defensive – realize that they have that negative message blaring, all the time, and if we want our positive words to get through, we have to be very clear and direct: “I’m sorry it sounded like that, I want you to know that I really think you are doing a lot of good work here.”

It’s easiest to recognize this in others when we accept it in ourselves. So notice when you are “overreacting.” Ask yourself what else you are reacting to, and then model for the kids the ability to say, “I’m sorry, I was frustrated just now by something else; it’s not you.” And if it makes you feel better, sometimes just jump up and down on a pile of chips.

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