Understanding Overreaction

We’ve all had the experience of responding to a perceived offense with an irate email, or a righteous tirade, only to regret it later, after we’ve settled down.

What felt justified in the heat of the moment later seems unwise or beneath our dignity.

Why is this? What is the broader principle at work here?

Intense personal emotions, like anger or indignation, are in-the-moment signs that our perspective has become narrow and constrained.

Our focus has become intensely personal, largely to the exclusion of the bigger picture (for example, what others are experiencing or deeper factors that may be at play). As a result, actions taken from that state-of-mind will tend to be imbalanced and ineffective.

As a result, actions taken from that state-of-mind will tend to be imbalanced and ineffective. They will also tend to provoke reactivity in the other person, reducing their capacity to act in wise or balanced ways.

Now, since the human mind has a natural tendency to self-correct, our personal reactivity will tend to dissipate and a more impersonal and balanced perspective will emerge.

Many of us intuitively grasp this.  This is why we all grasp the wisdom of “sleeping on” things.  We hit pause on the righteous tirade in favor of a response (or non-response) that reflects a more inclusive, impersonal or balanced standpoint, one that is far more likely to be productive.

Some of us, though, may resist this shift and hang on to their personal reactivity, especially if we believe the intensity and strength of the reaction is an indicator of its rightness rather an indicator of imbalance.

In fact, this root misunderstanding, which remains widespread, is one of the reasons the world remains rife with intractable conflict.

But the hopeful message is this:  left to its own devices, our mind’s natural tendency is to clear away conflict-laden thoughts and replace them with ones that reflect equanimity and understanding, which are far more productive places from which to act.

In a negotiation, for example, I may feel a surge of insecurity or righteous indignation towards my adversary.  In those moments, I understand my perspective is not entirely balanced and trustworthy, so I do not act from that place. I set aside those thoughts as best I can, knowing my mind will produce more balanced insights along the way.

I can count on that, because it is how we work as human beings.

What I’m writing about here is not a doing or technique but rather, simply an understanding. We are all prone to lose perspective on a regular basis, but we have emotional indicators that tell us when we have done so.

Recognizing the indicators and letting our minds reset is a simple way to avoid counter-productive over-reactions before we’ve considered all the angles.

We’re not always able to do this, but even when we don’t, understanding how this works enables us look back on the situation with understanding – and that too is helpful.