In some cases, overreactions are learned behavior that was modeled by a parent. Some people catastrophize everything, creating constant melodrama and mountains out of molehills. They may have grown up living in a perpetual state of crisis, and although they claim to hate it, they repeatedly recreate their stressful childhood environment.
More common examples of overreactions are: Marge worries that her husband is having an affair when he has to work late. This triggers for her because her father worked long hours and cheated on her mother. When Marge asks her husband to help with the dishes, he becomes angry that she’s “telling him what to do.”
In fact, he’s reacting to his domineering mother from his youth, not his wife. Marge was intimidated by her mother’s anger, so when her husband is angry, she accepts his blame and apologizes, though she did nothing wrong. By doing so, she not only reinforces his erroneous projection, but she also is encouraging his abusive communication.
Healing Our Triggers
The first step in healing triggers is being able to identify them, as well as your internal beliefs. Remember that these are wounds, and approach them with compassion and tenderness. Depending upon what the trigger is, healing may involve the stages of grief and/or re-evaluating the context and validity of learned beliefs.
People have different styles of reacting. One person might withdraw, while another attack. It’s important to identify your reactive behavior and learn to detach rather than react. Then, evaluate the function and effectiveness of your behavior, and experiment with more productive responses. (For suggestions and exercises, see Codependency for Dummies.) As noted above, both overreactions and dysfunctional reactive styles can contribute to the problem we want to avoid. For example, placating an abuser invites more abuse, while setting effective boundaries diminishes it over time.
With healthy self-esteem and intact boundaries, we’re able to see that another person’s actions and point-of-view are not a reflection on us, but express his or her unique perspective, experience, needs, and feelings. There’s no need to react, only to listen and respond. Once we’re more connected to our real selves, we can tolerate differing opinions and even negative feelings about us.
We can listen to our own feelings and think about the other person’s words and actions. We can decide whether we agree and whether we’re responsible for the other person. We alone determine what we want to do, if anything, and whether we owe an apology.
When we’re reacting, sometimes anger covers up really hurt or vulnerability, blame may be hiding guilt, and self-blame may be displaced anger we have toward someone else. When we take time to connect to our true selves, if we have feelings about what was said, we can respond authentically, which is different from an automatic knee-jerk reaction.
We needn’t feel angry just because our partner is, nor guilty because he or she is hurt or upset with us, and we needn’t stop speaking to him or her when we’re being stone-walled. This is why meditation and learning to detach is so important in recovery. By not reacting, we can relate in a more authentic manner, which invites the same from other people and dramatically changes our interactions with them.