Reactivity: Root Causes of Reactivity

Let’s start with some synonyms for the word reactive; hasty, unthinking, immediate, knee jerk, imprudent, rash.    Most arguments are reactive interchanges, like a ping pong game….I hit, you hit back, I return the volley and you try a better shot that will get me off balance.  Once a discussion gets reactive, it’s down hill from there.  Nothing good is going to happen, yet we keep going.  You can stop a hurtful, defensive volley of words any time.  Own your part: “I’m  being defensive and reactive.  Give me a few minutes to collect myself and I will come back and try to do a better job listening.”

Just like Buddy,  (read last week’s newsletter if you missed out on Buddy)  most of us overreact when we are triggered.  A trigger occurs  when something is happening in the present that reminds us of a past pain or wound and we over react because the past is flooding into the present.  Often we are not aware that the past is surfacing and focus all of our upset feelings on the person in front of us.  For example, my own dad was always busy and rarely available.  When he was around he was often preoccupied and not in a great mood.

So, if Milan gets busy or preoccupied with some concern, I can feel the same feelings I felt with my dad….unseen, unimportant, invisible.  What if I was not aware of how my dad affected me?  What if I had never identified those feelings in my relationship with my dad?  I would have no awareness that Milanmight be touching an old wound.  I could easily blame him for making me feel invisible and overreact.  As an avoider and an introvert, I tend to overreact by detaching and withdrawing.  (I don’t need anybody anyway is the mantra of the avoider).

Another example.  Tom, a middle aged married man, feels like his wife neglects him and her friends and the kids are always more important.  This makes him angry and volatile when he feels she is unavailable. His wife Tracy reacts to his reactivity.  She tells Tom, “I DON”T like being with you because you are always angry.”  This has been a core argument for years.

Why is Tom so upset and angry?  A little exploration into his past uncovers interesting and telling facts.  Tom was the fourth child in his family, all born within six years.  His mom was a pastor’s wife who was on every committee and always helping at the church.  In addition, the family was always taking in to their home,  troubled, down and out people which further occupied mom’s time. Tom’s feelings about his mom?  “She was too busy, neglectful of her own kids and I hated those people who were always coming in and out of our home.” I wanted my mom to myself for five minutes with no interruptions.”

It’s pretty easy for Tom’s wife to unintentionally touch an old wound.    Some of the anger Tom has toward his wife is due to the unresolved grief and anger he has about his own mother’s unavailability.  He never expressed anger and disappointment to his mom because she was so “nice” and he did not want to hurt her.  During an appointment, I had Tom’s wife “stand in” for his mom.  I told Tom, “Let’s pretend for a few moments that Tracy is your mom.  I want you to express how her neglect made you feel.  Tell her what it cost you.  Tell her how your life might have been different if she was home more and more attentive.”

As Tom began to talk, his anger turned to tears.  He could make the connection between his feelings about his mom and his feelings about his wife. His childhood feelings were seeping into the present.  Tracy, Tom’s wife, had never been aware of Tom’s pain.  Only his anger.  Seeing Tom’s pain gave her new motivation to see the hurt under his anger and attend to that.  It also made her more tender toward making time for him.

What makes you overreact?  What are the feelings?  Are you aware of changes in your body?  Does your stomach hurt?  Do you get a tight chest?  Do you clench your jaw, pick your nails or get a headache?  Do these feelings or bodily reactions have roots into the past?  Who or what gave you these same feelings?  A mom?  Dad?  Sibling?  Step parent?  School?  Think about it.  Have you addressed these wounds?  Have you received validation and comfort for the hurts in your past.  If you have, they will no longer hold such power over you.  Next week….how each love style overreacts.