Recalibrating (Over) Reactivity

Written by Lydia Ievleva | April 26, 2019

Have you ever found yourself in a pattern of being accused of (or accusing your partner) of ‘over-reacting’ on hot button issues? That is with excessive anger? This can be frustrating and infuriating, and frequently leads to escalation rather than resolution. What is worse, and a bit ironic, is that legitimate complaints or concerns get lost in the mix as focus turns to the reactivity — and then having to apologize and mop up for having gone too far, despite being the one initially aggrieved. How can we get past such patterns of behaviour?

Firstly, how do we determine whether one is over-reacting? When others get uncomfortable? A more objective measure is whether the reaction is stronger than the incident warrants. Reacting with disproportionate severity is a sign of unresolved pain from the past that has been either suppressed or repressed, that needs to be addressed. Otherwise, as you’ve experienced, it will find a way to surface at any opportunity, that you’ll find hard to control, and too often at the most inopportune moments. Essentially there will be an automatic, hard-wired reaction, urging buried pain to add fuel to the fire. This extreme response is what Daniel Goleman aptly describes as a ‘hijacking’ of the amygdyla. We’re not just reacting to a present perceived slight/danger/trigger, but to all the related unresolved issues from the past — we’ve got recovering to do! So if you can’t quell the reactivity, how do you break the cycle of outbursts? The answer lies in confronting what has been buried, rather than being dismissive and/or avoiding the issue, which only makes things worse. Avoidance buys you time affording temporary relief, while pressure mounts internally for an inevitable greater eruption in near future. As the saying goes: that which you avoid controls you; and that which you resist persists.

The answer lies in
confronting what has been buried,
rather than being dismissive and/or
avoiding the issue…

To overcome this you need to ensure you don’t get distracted by your partner’s criticisms, or allow yourself to be seduced by a debate about right and wrong, which may serve as a welcome diversion, but is ultimately futile in moving on. Instead, recognise that anger is a safe albeit destructive emotion that covers up vulnerability, and commits to identifying and attending to the old unmet needs, hurts and fears. When you attend to the underlying needs better, you’ll notice that your reactions become more ‘reasonable’. Or as we like to say — you will respond more effectively (rather than react). You will also become better at expressing your views and feelings, in a way that can be better heard and understood. This will free you to more optimally navigate any new issues you come across, rather than creating a new pile of unresolved pain. If your issues seem too overwhelming or entangled to sort alone, it may help to unload with a qualified psychologist or other professional to help trace, face, and then erase the hold your past may have on you; so that you can then embrace a better way of being. For a strategy that is gaining traction — try the Rewriting History guided imagery recording. Listen to the recording. 

Revised version from: Women’s Health & Fitness Column, July (vol. 18; issue 7) by Lydia Ievleva (2012)