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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills

Why We Overreact

The more we live, the more we are invited to recognise an awkward, sobering truth about our characters: our congenital tendency to overreact to everything.

Small children are classic overreactors; this we know, and can understand.  They have only been here for three or four summers and therefore everything naturally appears larger, sadder, happier, more tragic and more delightful than it is. It’s the first time nonou loses an eye. The first time blankie gets lost. The first time someone shouts at them. And the first time they meet a chocolate fountain, a water slide or a soap bubble. 

Photo of a volcanic eruption.
Photo by Toby Elliott on Unsplash

But, to a greater extent than would be respectable, we follow them in their intensity deep into adulthood. The difficulty at work is – we feel in the eye of the storm – the end of everything. The party is terrifying. The broken computer is a catastrophe. The looming deadline is atrocious. A little while later, none of this seems so challenging any more. The reasons why we ever got so scared, excited or down escape us. 

The explanations almost always lie in our pasts. The good parent knows about a child’s proclivity to overreact and is on hand to counteract it across the years. No, it’s not a tiger behind the window, it’s just the wind.  No, the teacher isn’t a monster, he must have been tired. You’re not dying darling (though I understand that’s how you feel), it’s a nosebleed. From such continuous gentle recalibrations, the child derives a sense of how far from soundness their initial responses may have been – and what a more serene outlook might look like. They learn not to be so loyal to their first responses. 

But we have not all been blessed with calming care-givers. There are parents who confirm, and then further aggravate, their children’s largest fears. It’s not only awful, it’s abysmal, and it’s time to smash up the house, break a chair, hit someone and scream so loudly the neighbours start banging on the ceiling. It isn’t merely a bit bad, it’s worth threatening suicide over. The chain of overreaction flows down the generations. No one has the wherewithal to interrupt the panic, turn on the light, and say with the necessary calm and authority: Enough!

The sad aspect is that while we over-react to certain things, we will all the while – by definition – also simultaneously be under-reacting to many others. While we focus wholeheartedly on the present tension with an employee at work, we will forget to notice the kindness of a friend, the shift in the seasons and the preciousness of life more broadly. We can’t hear the fainter sounds, so loud is our heartbeat. We ignore the spring flowers, the opportunity for self-reflection and the clouds over the city at dusk. It seems so much more compelling to be frenzied and at sea. We will hardly have lived, so busy were we anticipating the end of everything.

We are liable too, in all this, to miss the overreaction of others, believing that what they show us of themselves must substantially be who they are rather than as is the case with us, so often just a passing spike of alarm with which they don’t deserve to be identified. 

No one ever really tamed their fearful minds by being told to stop being so silly – rather only by someone modelling calm through their own behaviour while manifesting sympathy for the reasons why panic might feel more appropriate. We never set out to be such inveterate exaggerators. It’s just that no one ever showed us that there might be another, more bearable way to be – or held out their patient hand to help us to get there.

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