Understanding your partner’s emotional over-reactions

“I can’t understand why you get so upset about such an unimportant thing?” “What got you so angry?” “I can’t figure out what triggers you to start yelling”. If these or other similarly perplexing questions occur to you about your partner’s or anyone else’s intermittent reactions (and who doesn’t?) – then this column may be helpful to you.

Most people find themselves puzzled by some of their mate’s over-reactions to what appears to be a benign exchange. Even when the partner attempts to explain the source of the intense emotions, it does not seem to be logical. Many individuals sometimes find themselves bewildered by their own responses to certain events. Does this mean that we are all crazy? No, it means that we have a self –protective mechanism that guards us against emotional threats.

The emotional over-reaction covered here does not include ongoing abusive or violent outbursts.

Most people have been impacted by some emotionally threatening early experiences such as: being belittled, disrespected, rejected, criticized, isolated, ridiculed, unaccepted or compared unfavorably to others. These behaviors may have originated, often unintentionally, by parents, siblings, peers, teachers, coaches, or others. The pain associated with being treated in a discounting way leads one to feelings of undesirability and worthlessness.

The scars from these episodes, as scant as they may have been, may stay painful for life. A self-preservation vigilance is developed about any current stimulus that may evoke the old pain.

For many others the old pain has to do with their own interpretation of events and the internal process of self-discounting. People who, for example, tend to unfavorably compare themselves to others, are insecure, fearful and less accomplished than they believe they should be, may be angry, envious, begrudging and may emotionally over-react towards those whom they perceive as more accomplished and successful.

Another component of the mystery of one’s emotional makeup is the fears one has about not being of value. People perceive their source of worth coming from different avenues. Some feel validated by success, money and status symbols, others see themselves as helpful to others, or being creative, or improving the world in their own way. Whatever one’s secret formula for self-worth is, when this avenue is blocked, a strong emotional reaction is likely to occur. This over-reaction is the cry for recognition of one’s merit.

All the prior hurts, the attitudes toward oneself and others and the internal perception of what makes one’s life worthwhile, are deep personal concepts that may be known fully only by their owner. Sometimes even the over-reactive person is unaware of the quick mental connections to threat that produce his intense affect. Partners may have some ideas about their mates’ emotional workings, but are not privileged to every trigger that induces threat to his or her significance.

The reason that even the person who feels the intense reaction cannot trace the path his mind took is because it occurs instantly. Just as we do not need to wait for electricity to travel through the electrical cord before the lamp goes on, so does the mind acts reflexively. When a word, message, gesture, concept or event occurs that has an element of the old threatening one it awakens the stored pent up pain, which harshly declares itself in an emotional over-reaction. Since it is not a logical reaction to current event, it cannot be understood by others and thus may be labeled “crazy”.

If you witness an emotional overreaction,

• Remember the rule: If it is not logical – it is old. If you can’t see the connection between the current event and the excessive reaction, it has to do with your partner’s association to prior threatening event.
• It happens to all people and is not “crazy”. It is the normal response to a serious threat to one’s self-worth.
• Do not personalize the reaction. It is not about you. See the anger, yelling and outrage as an expression of a child fearing grave harm.
• Affirm the feelings, “I see that you are very upset about this”. Even if you are being accused, restrain yourself by knowing that it is a regressed reaction of your mate.
• Ask your partner later what was hard for him/her. Knowing what the threat to his/her significance was may help you understand your partner better.
• During your own over-reaction, ask yourself what this situation reminds you of. It may help you realize that you are responding to the past and not to the present and regain your composure.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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