Why Do I Overreact to Emotion?

overreact to emotions
While I usually blame my reaction on someone else’s emotions, the truth is often that my own emotions are the ones raging out of control.

A few days ago as my wife and I were talking, she expressed that she had some fears about the future of our kids.

Instead of calmly being interested in what she was feeling and sharing my own fears, I launched into an inquisition as to why she was so afraid, gave a 45 minute lecture on the negative impact of fear, and began to question her relationship with God, her emotional bandwidth, and ended with comments about her selfishness. She simply responded, “Wow, overreact much?”

Do you ever find yourself overreacting to emotion? I do all the time. While I usually blame my reaction on someone else’s emotions, the truth is often that my own emotions are the ones raging out of control. Just like The Office’s Andy, my emotions can lead me into all kinds of overreactions.   

Where do my overreactions come from?

[34] Your words show what is in your hearts. [35] Good people bring good things out of their hearts, but evil people bring evil things out of their hearts.

Matthew 12:34b-35 CEV

Jesus says it is what is in my heart, not what is in someone else’s heart, that determines my words and reactions. When I am not identifying, understanding and working through my own emotions, I will overreact to the emotions of others.

This happens because my heart is so full of my own unprocessed emotion, I can’t handle anyone else telling me what they feel. My emotional bucket is full. I need to have a running dialogue with God, my spouse, and my friends to continually unpack my heart, so I have space to hear and empathize with someone else.

So above all, guard the affections of your heart, for they affect all that you are. Pay attention to the welfare of your innermost being, for from there flows the wellspring of life.

Proverbs 4:23 TPT

The Bible tells me how important it is to “pay attention” to my innermost being because everything in my life is affected by the condition of my heart. Liz Fosslien, author of “No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work” says it like this:

“We tend to have strong emotional reactions when we’ve been sitting on our feelings for too long. This usually happens because we failed to address a minor issue when it first arose.”

Liz Fosslien

Liz Fosslien goes on to say, “People who accept and work through their negative emotions, either by themselves or by calmly discussing an issue with another person, are able to better cope with stress and less likely to get mired in their bad mood…”

Reflection questions

  • What are some overreactions you have had lately?
  • What feelings have you been sitting on for a long time?
  • What heart work do you need to do with God to address unprocessed emotion?

What do my overreactions look like?

[10] The next day the LORD let an evil spirit take control of Saul, and he began acting like a crazy man inside his house. David came to play the harp for Saul as usual, but this time Saul had a spear in his hand.

[11] Saul thought, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” He threw the spear at David twice, but David dodged and got away both times.

1 Samuel 18:10-11 CEV

If you read the book of 1 Samuel, you’ll notice that Saul was the king of overreactions. In the example above, David is just playing some music to try to help him calm down, and Saul throws his spear to try to kill him. All of his unspoken jealousy, insecurity, and fear welled up inside of him and eventually made him explode.

While I have never thrown a physical spear at someone, I have certainly looked at people with daggers in my eyes and used words to cut them down.

I have found that there are two ways overreactions present themselves: internal and external reactions.

  1. Internal reactions are when we dwell on things that don’t go our way and we can’t think about anything else.  We stew about small slights that happen throughout the day like someone cutting us off in traffic, or someone’s tone of voice.  Rather than verbalizing these thoughts and feelings, we are silent and stuff them inside. This makes us moody and creates tremendous stress. We become a walking time bomb that will eventually explode on the next person that expresses an emotion near us. 
  2. External reactions are usually instantaneous and outward, like yelling or snapping back at someone about something we don’t like. While these reactions can be hurtful those around us, the good news is they are visible and show that something in our heart is awry.  If we listen to these signs and get help from God, our family and friends, we can do the heart work that helps us process what is going on inside.  

Reflection questions

  • What do my overreactions look like?
  • Do I have more internal reactions or external reactions?

What kind of overreactor am I?

Explore me, O God, and know the real me. Dig deeply and discover who I am. Put me to the test and watch how I handle the strain. [24] Examine me to see if there is an evil bone in me, and guide me down Your path forever.

Psalm 139:23-24 Voice

One of the greatest benefits of having a relationship with God is that he helps us discover and know who we really are deep inside. Through the Scriptures, God helps us to develop an awareness of why we respond or react the way we do.

In my life, I’ve noticed three different types of overreactions to emotion. Which type of overreactor are you?

  1. Avoider – This type of overreactor avoids people who are emotional or needy because he/she doesn’t want any kind of emotional upheaval.  They can do this by withdrawing and detaching or by being irritated and annoyed whenever someone expresses a need or an emotion. Avoiders will stop overreacting when they allow themselves to feel and express their needs with God and friends (Psalm 62:8)
  2. Pleaser – This type of overreactor wants everyone to feel OK all the time. They become very anxious and fearful wanting to protect everyone and make them feel good. When ‘Pleasers’ can’t find a solution, their anxiety and fearfulness create a frenetic pace in life. Pleasers stop overreacting when they slow down and deal with their focus on people and their own anxiety and fear with God. (Psalm 34:4)
  3. Controller – I relate to this type of overreactor the most. Controllers want to keep all painful emotions at arms length so they try to control people and circumstances. They see vulnerability as a painful, uncontrollable exercise, so they turn to anger and irritability to keep people away. Controllers stop overreacting when they get humble and learn to get confidence and security from their relationship with God. (Psalm 46:10)

Reflection questions

  • What type of overreactor am I?
  • Is my relationship with God helping me develop an awareness of who I really am?

What can I do to change?

Listen to me and you will be prudent and wise. For even the foolish and feeble can receive an understanding heart that will change their inner being.

Proverbs 8:5 TPT

As this scripture states, if we listen to God’s wisdom, he can change us from the inside out. Here are three ways I am working to change my overreactions.

  1. Verbalize – This is learning to have a running dialogue with God in prayer. I can’t just have a quiet time in the morning and then shut down my conversation with God throughout the day. I have to learn to constantly tell God, my spouse, and my friends everything that is happening inside of my heart. I find that when I do this, I create room in my heart to feel more compassion and to be more loving to the people around me.  
  2. Identify – This is doing the spiritual work to identify emotions, sins, desires, and dreams. For me, this requires reflection in prayer, discovery in the Scriptures, and engagement in conversations. The more I learn how to identify what is going on in my heart, I am able to help others do this in their life as well.    
  3. Spiritualize – How can the emotions, sins, and desires I identify lead me to a deeper intimacy with God?  What scriptures best describe how I feel? Who in the Bible went through what I am going through now? How is God using what I am going through as a way to equip me to help and love someone else? 

Working on these 3 areas is helping me grow closer to God. The closer I get to God the more he is able to help me become a loving person. And ultimately, love is the cure for all of our overreactions:

[4] Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. [5] Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense.

[6] Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. [7] Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 TPT

When we do spiritual and heart work with God, he will transform us into loving people. Rather than being irritated, we will be patient. Rather than being harsh, we become gentle. And, rather than lashing out in criticalness, we will believe the best for others.

Reflection questions

  • Do I have a running dialogue with God throughout the day?  
  • How much do I identify the emotions, sins, and desires I experience in a day?
  • Do I find scriptures to help me understand spiritually what I am feeling?
  • Is my relationship with God helping me become a more loving person?
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