How do you measure whether your emotional reactions are completely out of proportion to the situation? If I start crying because I lost my pen, it would be an overreaction. But if the same response was to putting my cat/dog to sleep, it may not be. Cultural factors and expectations play a huge role in evaluating emotional expressions and their intensity. Many boys and men have been raised being taught that “boys don’t cry.” There are those who have grown up with the belief that being angry, or even very happy, is a no-no. Family traditions, religious thought, and gender roles all affect our emotional portfolio.

There may be times when a caring friend’s observation may be helpful. But often, anyone who is asked about overreacting, in fact, gets more upset – because on one hand, the feelings are being denied and on the other, he/she is being judged. What is different in reacting as opposed to overreacting? I define it as a more intense reaction of feelings, as in more angry, sadder, or more fearful. Introducing rationality into this subject, one can ask: Why is the intensity of the expression objectionable? Is it because the partner or friend is overwhelmed with it? Not knowing how to respond? Having their own reaction that is too scary to express? Believes any emotion is to be suppressed? If there were conflict-resolution classes starting in elementary school we might have adults who can deal better with difficult times. I would guess that those who understand and observe their own behaviors and inner resources have an easier time getting through rough spots. We know, however, that whether in a romantic relationship, within our families, or in the workplace, negotiating conversations involve emotions in direct or indirect ways. If your coworker is interrupting you every few minutes, you have to confront that behavior itself but there are also the feelings attached. When you respond with irritation and anger, being told you are overreacting exacerbates the exchange.

I am not advocating that we should all strongly vent whatever we feel at the moment, but that within the personal sphere, we should have the freedom to express how we feel in constructive terms. In that context, if you are told you are overreacting, take a second to gauge your reaction, and if you think it is appropriate, ask why that comment is made. Rather than debating the intensity of your response, try to understand why it is seen as over the top. There is a chance it may be. But there is also the possibility that the other person is having a problem in dealing with it. We all have vulnerabilities that can creep up on us. It is only by examining our actions and thoughts that we can evolve towards healthier relationships and friendships.

Author Profile

Janan Broadbent, PhD
Janan Broadbent, PhD
As a psychologist in private practice since 1979, Janan Broadbent, Ph. D. offers individual, couples, group and family therapy, in addition to conducting workshops on topics such as stress management, communication skills and assertiveness. She writes about current issues relevant to relationship building and conflict resolution in LGBTQ and minority populations, with emphasis on health, fitness and education.

Born in Turkey, Dr. Broadbent earned her undergraduate degree in psychology in 1965. At that time, first as a Fulbright Scholar, then as a CENTO Fellow, she received her master's and doctorate degrees in psychology and education from the University of California at Los Angeles. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in psychology at St.Mary's College of Maryland, Mt. Vernon College in Washington, D. C., Johns Hopkins University and the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore. From 1981 to 1988, she was also the Director of Counseling at Notre Dame College.
While in graduate school, Dr. Broadbent worked for the Voice of America radio program, writing and recording materials on the cross-cultural college experience. She has been interviewed on various news programs on TV and has received media training.
Dr. Broadbent is a member of the American Psychological Association and has served as the chair for the Public Affairs Board and as a member of the Executive Council of the Maryland Psychological Association.
Dr. Broadbent's office is located at:
Village of Cross Keys, 120 West Quadrangle, 2 Hamill Road, Baltimore, Maryland 21210-1847 phone: 410-825-5577