Why do I overreact in slight provocation sometimes?

One of my clients told me that he frequently cannot control his anger towards his mother-in-law.  One day, he went to have lunch with his wife’s parents and he wore a colourful shirt.  When his mother-in-law saw him, she criticized him for wearing a too bright shirt.  Even though he was being able to control himself from not throwing temper towards his mother-in-law, he felt very angry inside and cannot enjoy the lunch totally.  When he shared this incident with his friends, they invalidated his anger and told him that he overreacted.  They said his mother-in-law might try to advice him on wearing more appropriately for work.  Without his friends’ validation and understanding, my client felt very upset and alone.  He even could not figure out why he overreacted in the standard of his friends.  Do you have any experience of overreacting in slight provocation?

Sometimes, our emotional reactions towards someone or some happening might be out of proportion compared with the intensity of the provocation this person or this happening on us.  In these cases, our emotional reactions might be related to our emotional memories from the past.  For instance, for my client, who had out-of-proportion anger towards his mother-in-law, might be affected by some negative emotional memories with her in the past.  Before he got married with his wife, his mother-in-law kept asking his wife to think twice as she thought he was not competent enough to have a successful career in the future.  She also treated my client with contempt sometimes when he tried to please her by cooking a nice dinner for her. 

In fact, our negative emotional memories with someone in our present lives might also be related to our childhood memories with our significant others.  If we had some unmet needs in our relationships with our significant others, such as our parents.  We might have buried some negative emotional memories towards them or towards ourselves.  For example, my client above had a mother who was also very critical and demanding.  He seldom obtained approval from her in his childhood.  His unmet need for being approved and recognized actually causing him to feel shameful about himself.  When he was being criticized by his mother-in-law about his colorful shirt, his reaction was also related to his past.  His needs for being approved and recognised are unmet and he felt angry and shameful about it.  As a result, he overreacted towards a causal criticism by his mother-in-law.

In reality, we might not be conscious about our overreactions sometimes.  We only knew that we would like to react in a different way.  It is important for us to understand the impact of our past experiences on us.  For those who have been overreacting frequently, it might be beneficial to undergo psychotherapy to explore ones’ childhood experiences and unmet needs.

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