If you look up the word “overreact” in most dictionaries, the gist of the definition goes something like this: “responding to a stimulus with more emotion or behavior than necessary.” Given this meaning, there are two possibilities here. Either you have evaluated your response and decided that it was more than what the situation called for, or someone else has given you feedback that they think this is the case. Either way, if it’s apparent that your emotional expression or physical action did not fit the parameters of the context in which they occurred, and you want to react differently in the future, there are three things you can do in less than five minutes to install a new mental program.
Did you ever play the dress-up game as a kid where you put on dad’s shoes or “borrowed” some of your mother’s make-up and pretended to be an adult? Even though you didn’t know it at the time, games like dress-up are actually meaningful learning activities where children mimic a role model and act out pieces of behavior. Doing this literally “installs” those behavioral patterns with repetition. The first of the three things you can do to change your overreaction is to pick a role model who would behave in ways which you find appealing in the same context in which you used to overreact. This person can be real or fictitious. All you need is a mental movie of how they would behave that lasts for 2-3 seconds. Set up the role model in the same situation as yourself and run the movie. Pay careful attention to their way of speaking, their posture, voice tone, facial expression, and their mannerisms. Now play this movie in your head a few times, making sure all of the crucial pieces are in place and that their reaction is effective for you. Feel free to tweak any pieces that don’t fit.
Now comes the fun part. Just like when you were a kid, mentally act out the scenario with the role model in mind, but this time step inside their skin and experience the clip from “behind their eyes.” See, hear and feel what you imagine what they would see, hear and feel. If something seems out of place, feel free to pop out of the role model and make any adjustments by watching your role model react in a better, more productive way that fits in with the overall ecology of who you are.
The key to games like dress-up or copy-cat is repetition. Taking a minute or two and really getting inside of your role model a few times helps your brain and your body learn new emotions and behaviors that you’ll need the next time you’re triggered. When you’ve gotten this second part down, move on to the third and final step.
Human behaviors and emotions always occur within some kind of context. We really are not hard wired to be able to do a piece of behavior randomly. Regarding overreacting, there was a specific stimulus that triggered a sequence of thoughts and feelings which led to a specific output. To re-sequence this reaction you’ll need to attach your role model’s behavior, which you have acquired through rehearsal, to a reliable trigger that resides in the context we are working on. So, if your friend uses a certain voice tone that flips on your crazy switch or your husband gives you a look that sends you off the deep-end, create a new movie of that very trigger seeing yourself in your mind’s eye perceiving the trigger and then watch as you act with the same elegance as your role model–but this time it is you! Run the movie again remembering to jump into your own skin, perceive the trigger, and act out mentally what you would think, say and do in that situation now having the new resource of your role model.
You will be able to run through this technique quickly and easily once you try out this technique on a few examples from your past. In addition, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that you can change other unwanted behaviors and feelings by learning from role models in this new and streamlined way. Feel free to experiment! It’s your mind and there is nothing wrong with playing with it.
- Think of a role model who does not overreact.
- Create a short mental movie of that person in action noticing his/her non-verbal and verbal behaviors.
- Evaluate the effectiveness and make any necessary tweaks.
- Run the movie again with yourself in your role model’s skin.
- Choose a future context where you want to behave like your role model.
- See yourself in that context with the new behavior and step into the picture and look out through your own eyes.