If you’re like most people, you don’t like being told you’re overreacting. Truthfully, we all overreact at times, and it’s not enjoyable for anyone. For the overreactor, there is rumination often followed by regret over words or actions. For the recipient, feelings of shock, defensiveness, and/ or confusion are very common. And supportive others often tire of hearing the overreactor’s rant. From all of this, relationships can be wounded and even severed. So how do you overcome overreacting?
Back when I was working in a school psychology setting, a colleague shared lightheartedly with me that his teenaged client had described me in positive terms, and had referred to my skin colour as “mocha.” For some reason, I was poised to react with hostility, but I knew that reaction was likely unreasonable and inappropriate. The following four steps helped me, and may help you in getting a potential overreaction under control:
Know your buttons. Overreactions are usually related to someone “pushing your buttons.” Understanding your past experiences and their impact on your present functioning puts you at a huge advantage over things that may push your buttons. Often referred to as triggers or raw spots, these buttons are experiences or another’s words or actions (which may range from innocent to malicious), that quickly activate an intense emotion related to the past. My skin colour being referred to in culinary terms triggered feelings from being teased as a child; since I am of mixed ethnicity and I grew up in a time and place where that was uncommon, I was called names by my schoolmates (including references to food, such as “Oreo”). Awareness of that painful experience and that reminders of it are sensitive helped me to spot a trigger.
Recognize familiar feelings. Another way to catch a reaction before it becomes an overreaction is to take an approach from emotion-focused therapy (EFT), and notice any strong, familiar feelings. Such feelings may have roots beyond the present situation, indicating that you are about to react based on a wealth of past experiences. In my scenario, I instantly found myself feeling ashamed, self-conscious, and angry— feelings that were tied to my childhood experience, but were not warranted in such intensity in the present.
Dissect your inner dialogue. Overreactions are based on both deep-rooted feelings and distorted thoughts, so consider the evidence in the situation that may lead to alternative interpretations that cause you less distress. In cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), this is referred to as cognitive reappraisal or restructuring. As I evaluated my situation, I was calmed by the evidence that the student and my colleague considered the comment a compliment— one I actually agreed with, since I love the colour of my skin and it is quite similar to the shade of chocolatey milk-infused coffee. Also, remind yourself that you are not defined by one situation or person. Even if I was insulted, I could have responded assertively without any added hostility if I was armed with belief in myself.
Return to the present. Skills of mindfulness or grounding are helpful in this regard, as the focus is on bringing your attention to the present moment, so you can interact without distraction by feelings about the past or future. Depending on your past experiences and the emotions evoked, some helpful phrases to say to yourself might be: “this person is not the one who hurt me before” or “I am not in that situation anymore, I am confident/ independent/ safe.” I reminded myself that thankfully this student and colleague were not malicious like some of my childhood peers had been, so a protective response was unnecessary.
Working through the above processes should equip you to identify when a strong reaction is a potential overreaction, giving you mo control over your words and behaviour. You can then more consistently communicate and act in ways you won’t later regret, helping you experience a more manageable level of emotion and maintain healthy relationships.