Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Benefits of Overreaction

Words by Susan Esther Barnes
Photo by Alan Schweigert

We all have mental images of ourselves, ways that we define ourselves and our actions. “I’m artistic,” “I’m logical,” “I have a good sense of humor,” etc.

One of the things I tell people about myself is that I tend to overreact to things. Until recently, I thought that was a bad thing, but recently I have reconsidered.

It’s true that sometimes my tendency to overreact can get in my way. Sometimes, I am so surprised and dismayed by something that it seems my mind has ceased to function. My head is filled with white noise, and I, who revels in the use of words, feel incapable of forming any coherent thoughts, let alone translating those thoughts into phrases or sentences that anyone can understand.

This issue used to be a common problem for me in my first marriage. My (then) husband would say something (usually it would be something critical of me, or something threatening our relationship), and then would follow it up 5 or 10 seconds later with something along the lines of, “Why are you just sitting there? Say something!”

The truth is, when I am upset or very surprised, there is a nonverbal internal process that needs to take place before I can do anything else. The amount of time this process takes varies depending on the situation. If the surprise is bad enough, during the initial few seconds I am literally incapable of forming words in my head, let alone choosing which ones to express. My ex-husband never understood this.

Another one of my charming tendencies is that if I am hurt and/or uncomfortable, I want everyone else around me to feel hurt and uncomfortable, too. When I was younger, this led to me saying things that I very quickly came to regret.

So the next thing that happens, once I am capable of speech again, is I have to examine my feelings. Am I angry? Do I want to hurt the other person right now? If so, then I need to consider very carefully what I am about to say, because I don’t want to say something I’m likely to regret. This evaluation can lead to an even longer period of silence.

Over time, I have learned that this is a good time to say something like, “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble thinking right now,” in order to clue in the other person about why I’m just frozen there with a blank look on my face.

All of this requires a good amount of patience and understanding from the other person. If they’re going to be around me a lot, they’re going to run into this behavior from time to time. And, because it drove my ex-husband so buggy, for a long time I thought of this as a bad thing.

It has recently occurred to me, however, that these overreactions of mine have a couple of distinct advantages.

First, when I’m surprised, my inability to process words pretty much guarantees that I won’t unthinkingly snap back with a hurtful comment. Initially, I can’t speak at all, and in the process of trying to find and form words, my filters become engaged, and I have time to consider the possible downside to what I might be about to say.

Second, I have found that if I allow myself to become immersed in whatever my reaction might be at the time, eventually the perceived crisis loses its power over me. I find that after I have expended my initial overreacting burst of energy, I am once again able to think more clearly about the situation. I can re-evaluate whether or not things are as bad as I initially perceived them to be. I can start to plan how best to cope with it.

And, I have found, that rather than stuffing my feelings inside where they can rise up and surprise me in unpleasant ways at seemingly random moments, in my overreaction and recovery process I have expressed and then dealt with those feelings in such a way that once I’m done with an issue, I’m done. I don’t need to re-examine it later. I can move on.

So, although I don’t like the feeling when I overreact, and I have empathy for other people close to me who occasionally have to be discomforted by being exposed to my silent, blank-faced nonverbal process, in the end I think the benefits may make it worth it.


  1. A courageous deep psychological look at yourself--quite impressive. May we all be able to do what you have done.

  2. I'll try to stop harassing you.

    shabbat shalom,


  3. Meredith -
    If you think what you've been doing is harrassement, then you really suck at it. Hugs! And shabbat shalom.

  4. Oh, c'mon! Overreacting is not a problem)) It only causes a slight stress to your nervous system cuz it's no use to show so much emotion to everything you see or hear, but still...I think overreacting is even sweet, especially if you are a woman) That blush, that sincere look...It's wonderful and natural!