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Stop Overreacting: How to Control Your Emotions Before They Control You

controlled-1015719_960_720In the article So You Think You Don’t Have Anger Issues, we explored some the ways that we all use to inappropriately express anger.  This follow-up post will address overreacting.  Once again, nobody is exempt here.  We all overreact sometimes.

While some of us clearly get angry when it’s not warranted; overreaction can occur with any emotion.  But what can you do about it?

Understanding Overreacting

Believe it or not, some forms of overreacting are so subtle that people aren’t aware that it’s an issue for them.  Overreacting can include anything from a burst of sorrowful tears or a chip on your shoulder to committing a criminal offense.  If someone takes your lunch from the refrigerator at work, a normal reaction may be mild anger or irritation.  Rage, kicking the refrigerator, or feeling so hurt and insulted that the remainder of your day is ruined—that is overreacting.

What’s the Harm in Overreacting

If you overreact emotionally and nobody gets hurt, you may not see a problem with it.  Maybe nobody even knows that you overreact.  They can’t see the hours you wasted replaying what happened in your head, thinking about what you wish you had said, focusing on how this type of thing “always” happens to you, having an all out pity party, holding a grudge or plotting some passive-aggressive revenge.  So what harm does it do?

Well, for starters, it harms you.  Acting out aggressively by hitting a wall may damage a person’s hand; but unnecessarily bearing the weight of negative emotions does even more damage.

Overreacting can also damage your relationships with people by interfering with your communication skills.  If you walk around feeling hurt, resentful or bitter, those around you will definitely feel the sting.

How to Stop Overreacting

In order to stop overreacting, you’ll need these tools to help you gain control of your emotions:

  • Awareness of emotions. You can’t adapt to something you can identify, so awareness of your emotions is a critical first step. You need to know what is going on inside your mind and body. Think about the last time you felt negative emotion.  What happened and how did you really feel?  Did you get butterflies? Did your heart rate speed up?  Was the emotion really just anger? Or was there frustration, jealousy, fear, annoyance?  Did you feel useless, lonely, neglected, powerless?
  • Awareness of thoughts. Once you identify the emotions associated with your overreaction, you need to figure out what drives, triggers, and magnifies those emotions?  Why do you feel so angry, hurt, inadequate, afraid?  In most cases, it’s not what you think.When we find ourselves dealing with negative emotion, the thing most of us see as the cause is what I’ll call the activating event.  Some examples may be:
  • You get cut off in traffic
  • Your spouse forgets your anniversary or birthday
  • He stands you up for a date (without calling to cancel)
  • She ignores your call for the 3rd time
  • The boss passes you over for the promotion AGAIN
  • Your best friend told your big secret
  • Your teenager snuck out of the window

It’s the person or circumstance that “made” you feel that way, right?

Wrong!

In each of these situations, think about what happens right before the moment when you slam a door, find a way to make the other person feel bad, yell an obscenity or breakdown into a pool of tears. You may not realize it, but that moment is when you think the first of a series of emotion-triggering thoughts.

It is not the other person or their actions that cause you to feel like blowing up, caving in or taking off.  Fortunately, the only person with that much control over your life is you.

The real predecessor of your emotions (and subsequent reactions) is the thoughts that you think.  I know it sounds strange, but here’s an example.

You’re in the express line at the grocery store with two items in your hand.  Suddenly a woman jumps in front of you with a basket full of items.  Now what? Think for a moment about how you would typically respond to such a situation.

Before you feel anything in particular, something crosses your mind.

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?

  • She has no right to.
  • How dare she…
  • Who does she think she is?
  • What a rude [insert expletive here]!
  • I can’t believe she had the nerve to jump in front of me.
  • She thinks she’s better than I am.
  • People think they can treat you however they want.
  • Things like this always happen to me.
  • This is wrong, but I better not say anything.
  • It’s stupid to let her get away with this
  • I should give her a piece of my mind

Notice the pattern now?

  • Thought Stopping. For many people, the easiest way to stop overreacting is to take a mental time out.  That means inhale deeply and stop yourself “mid-thought.”  Initially, you may not be able to catch the very first thought, or even the second, but try to be more mindful and stop yourself as soon as you can.

Imagine yourself as a pot that’s on the brink of boiling over.  There’s nothing that can be done to cool you down completely in an instant.  But moving away from the heat source (your thoughts) can prevent the rapid boil-over before that might otherwise make a big mess.

This is your turnabout point.

  • Don’t take it personal. It’s important to remember that a person’s thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions tell their story—not yours.  If you’re a great employee but your boss doesn’t recognize that, it speaks volumes about the boss. If you overreact, it speaks volumes about you.
  • Rethinking (Change your thoughts). Now, think for a moment about a more reasonable way of looking at the activating event (what happened).  Could there be a more rational reason this person jumped in front of you? Something other than that she wants to be disrespectful or mean to you?  Consider the following:
  • She’s mentally ill
  • She’s stressed out and extremely distracted
  • She was abandoned as a child and no one ever  taught her any manners
  • She’s hurting inside and wants to hurt someone else
  • She desperately needs attention
  • She thought you were in a different line
  • She has vision problems

If any of the above reasons were true, how would you feel?  Irritated but not quite as angry? A little less hurt or offended?  Maybe you’d even feel some sympathy.

The idea with all of this is not to make you happy with upsetting events. You simply want to remember that you are responsible for your reactions; and it is your choice to control your emotions or not.

You are empowered.  You can handle conflicts and difficult situations in a way that creates the best possible reality for you.  But will you? Will you work on it? Or will you relinquish control of your emotions, thereby allowing some activating event to lead you down the harrowing path of a bad day, week, year or life?

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