I had an argument last week with someone I care deeply about. I was offended and hurt at a scale disproportionate to what had happened. I was overreacting, and I was aware that I was overreacting. I could recognize the disconnect between the triviality of what had happened and the enormity of what I was feeling. But conscious as I was of my overreacting, the emotions were still there and I had days of unease.
The structure looks something like this: an apparently ordinary situation or remark elicits from one member of a couple a reaction that doesn’t seem quite warranted, being unusually full of annoyance or anxiety, irritability or coldness, panic or recrimination. The person on the receiving end is puzzled. After all, it was just a simple request for a loving good-bye, a plate or two left unwashed in the sink, a small joke at the other’s expense or a few minutes’ delay. Why, then, the peculiar and somehow outsized response?
The behavior makes little sense when one tries to understand it according to the current facts. It’s as if some aspect of the present scenario were drawing energy from another source, as if it were unwittingly triggering a pattern of behavior that the other person originally developed long ago in order to meet a particular threat which has now somehow been subconsciously re-evoked. The overreactor is responsible, as the psychological term puts it, for the “transference” of an emotion from the past onto someone in the present – who perhaps doesn’t entirely deserve it.
Our minds are, oddly, not always good at knowing what era they are in.
In this way, in overreactions we can be reacting as much as or even more to events in our past than we are reacting to the situation directly at hand. Psychologist and author Dr. Elaine Aron as in her book The Undervalued Self would say this is the mind reliving and reacting to trauma.
[trauma] occurs when emotions are not just overwhelming but in some real sense unbearable. With enough stress and a sense of powerlessness to prevent more stress, the mind loses its wholeness and “falls apart,” “breaks down,” or “goes to pieces.” The brain goes through changes that, although often reversible, are the equivalent of an injury. Trauma can be acute, an abrupt experience, or chronic, something that grinds you down over time.Most life traumas involve other people in some way. Someone abandoned, defeated, hurt, or rejected us. Or, during a physical trauma, we feel that a person did not help us or did not help enough. As a result, most traumas automatically lead to the innate defeat response of depression and shame and an overall low sense of self-worth.