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When Little Incidents Provoke Big Explosions

Overreactions occur in every family - between children, between children and and parents, between parents themselves. One person gets inexplicably upset or offended by some apparently "trivial" event that doesn't seem to justify such a strong response. "Why are you acting to hurt and angry over something so small? Why make such big deal over such a little thing?" Often, after such an outburst, the exploding person feels as foolish as the person exploded at feels confused and unjustly treated.

Consider an overreaction between marriage partners. "All I said was, I didn't think you knew what you were talking about on this particular subject, and you went off on me like a bomb!"

The explosion over, both people may feel inclined not deal with the incident any further. "Let's just forget about it and move on." This decision to leave bad enough alone is a mistake because overreactions have much to teach.

Buried beneath the puzzling surface of what occurred there are usually significant issues to be productively discussed. There are four common types of overreactions, each one suggestive of a different set of issues that need attention in the exploder's life.

First, there are overreactions that occur as a function of surprise. "I just didn't expect you to question my qualifications for what I said because you usually take me at my word." An assumption has been violated.

Second, there are overreactions that occur as a function of suppression, from emotional build-up due to stress. "I just didn't need anybody else questioning my opinion after being grilled by a dissatisfied customer at work today. I had to act like the customer is always right when I sure didn't feel that way. I guess your comment was just one question too many." Emotional pressure from accumulated upset is finally released.

Third, there are overreactions that occur as a function of similarity. "When you questioned what I had to say, it was just like what my father used to do. I could never express any opinion to that man without having him discredit what I said." A current response revives old memories that still case pain.

And fourth, there are overreactions that occur as a function of symbolism. "Your questioning my opinion just goes to show that you have no respect for me. Maybe you never have!" A current response inflames a general issue that remains unresolved.

Overreactions usually signify that there's an important issue in the relationship in need of attending to. So whenever one occurs, it behooves the person exploding to ask him self or her self some questions to locate the source of the outburst (the type of overreaction) and discuss that with the partner.

The salient questions are these.

"What was I assuming was going to happen?" (Did I explode because of surprise?)

"What did this incident remind me of?" (Did I explode because of similarity to some past offense or hurt?)

"What else has been going on that has been upsetting me?" (Did I explode because of stress I have suppressed?)

"What did this event represent to me?" (Did I explode because of what was symbolized?")

An overreaction can have a lot of good lessons to teach if people will brave confronting the outburst after it is over to learn just why it occurred.

What seems to make "no sense" at the time usually makes a lot of important sense once it is truly understood. Such "little things" are really big things in disguise.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. 2003. For permission to use, contact the author.
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