Alain de Botton on What Lies Beneath When We Overreact

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 philosopher Alain de Botton in his book, The Course of Love, describes this phenomenon well.

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.

When a trauma involves an experience so bad that we can’t look at the whole thing, the mind must break it up for us, meaning that we dissociate. We may separate entire events from our consciousness so that we have no memory of them at all. Or we may separate feelings about a trauma from our memories of it, so that we do remember what happened but have no feelings about it. Meanwhile, we experience upsetting feelings, including chronic anxiety and depression, for “no reason.” And we behave in ways that surprise us because we do not see the connection between what we are doing now and the trauma in the past.

Trauma, according to Dr. Aron can take a variety of forms. She writes that

[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.

There can be so much happening within conflict and so many layers and such depth to what each person is feeling and why. We are all messy and damaged in our own ways. I really love then the approach that De Botton takes in so much of his writing to have the patience with a friend or lover as one does with a child. He writes in The Course of Love,

We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: “Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.”

We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with – and forgive – the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.

And to echo that sentiment of patience and understanding even when those we love are being trying,

Few in this world are every simply nasty; those who hurt us are themselves in pain. The appropriate response is hence never cynicism nor aggression but, at the rare moments one can manage it, always love.