Do you find yourself overreacting to present-day situations within your relationship? Are you confused about your strong response to seemingly insignificant events? If you are noticing yourself having emotional responses which feel more intense than what is warranted-this may be a sign that one of three intensifying factors is at play.
In his book How to be an Adult in Relationships, David Richo, Ph.D. sheds light on how our early childhood interactions with our parents or primary caregivers can lead to relationship problems in adulthood. Dr. Richo encourages us to examine what the underlying emotional charge is all about when we find ourselves responding intensely to a person or event. He describes three possible contributing factors to the intensity of our reaction--our shadow, our ego, or our unprocessed early-life experiences.
The shadow part of ourselves contains within it all of the aspects of our personality that we do not want to own and therefore keep out of our own sight. We may have learned to dislike this quality in ourselves because of how it was perceived by our loved ones when we were small. Or we may have learned this trait from our primary caregivers, along with some other negative qualities that we do not like to admit to. When we encounter someone who displays the parts of ourselves that we do not want to see, we usually have a very strong emotional response. Think about a quality that really annoys you in your partner, friend, or coworker. For example, if your friend is miserly and you despise seeing this personality aspect in him and have a strong reaction every time you think about it, this reaction may be a message. This quality may be one that you yourself possess but keep out of your own awareness. To gain more insight into this, you can ask yourself: is this a quality that I have? Do I sometimes behave in this way? Is there a __________ part of me? Seeing our shadow in someone else is a great opportunity to become more aware of and integrate disowned parts of ourselves. Once we gain awareness we can choose to work on these qualities if we consider them to be negative aspects of our personality.
Another contributing factor to the intensity of our reactions to people and events is our ego. We all have an ego and need it in order to survive and thrive in the world. However when an ego becomes out of control, it can become a problem. An arrogant ego is driven by fear, attachment, control, and entitlement. It manifests itself through self-talk such as: “I am entitled to more! How could someone treat me this way? I always get my way. No one will get away with mistreating me!” We may also have an impoverished and deflated ego which is submissive, fear-based, and self-victimizing. It shows up as self-talk such as: “I am always wrong, bad, and guilty. I don’t deserve anything. No one cares about me. I have no control over my life.” Both of these ego styles can significantly hinder our ability to see present-day situations for what they are and can cause us a tremendous amount of unnecessary emotional pain.
Finally, intense emotions in a current situation may actually be old feelings which have not been processed and have resurfaced. If you notice that a situation or person reminds you of someone or something from your past, your emotional reaction to the present may be marred by emotions which are carried over from another time and place. The past may be at play if you find yourself thinking: “This always happens to me! People are always_______ or never_______ for me! The way you are treating me reminds me of how my [fill in the blank with an important figure from your childhood] treated me.” Working through and freeing ourselves from our past is one of the major tasks of our life; and the first step in this process is starting to notice when we are transfering the past onto the present.
We can use our emotionally charged reactions to people and events as clues about which areas of our psyche we need to heal and grow. We can ask ourselves “is it my shadow, my ego, or my past that is having me overreact in this present situation?” By being more aware of these forces during our interactions, we can begin to develop more healthy and authentic ways of relating to the people and situations in our present life.