LIKE many people I talk to, Sandra (not her real name) was struggling with emotional reactivity. She often overreacted out of emotion and said or did things that she regretted later and that caused her problems. Things improved for her when I taught her how to think with her heart and to feel with her head.
Sandra had a highly successful career as a saleswoman, although she often switched companies because of her emotional problems.
A pattern emerged in each of her jobs. She’d lose her temper with “lazy” assistants who didn’t measure up to her standards. And yet, she lived in fear of others, like her boss, being harsh or critical of her – so much that her annual performance review brought on an anxiety attack.
She had difficulties at home, often lose her temper at her kids, criticize her husband, or lock herself in her room to cry when she was upset.
Interestingly, people who appear to be very calm or rational can also can be reactive, overly sensitive, moody, and unstable. Sometimes those with an apparent “cool head” are actually just overly detached from their feelings. When they get into an emotionally difficult situation they too are liable to “lose it.”
For people like this, being calm, cool, and collected is their defence against emotional reactivity. The problem with this defense is not only that it hides underlying emotional reactivity, but also that it means not really living life at all. Life without feelings is a black and white world. Relationships without feeling are shallow and boring. Decisions that don’t take feelings into account are often bad ones.
Ironically, emotional reactors and those who are detached often hook up in marriage or friendship. On the surface they appear to be so different, but inside – in their character structure, ability to set boundaries, and level of emotional maturity ¬ they are quite similar. Often, the cool head in the relationship is quick to blame the emotional reactor for their conflicts, but he or she is just as much a part of it. The cool head’s detachment is hurtful and avoids conflicts that need to be dealt with. Then when he or she finally is drawn into a conflict his or her emotional reactivity may become an obvious problem too.