Ronnie was inclined to fly off the handle. She was hypersensitive and tended to respond with exaggerated emotion to any stressful situation. “Just about everything with Ronnie adds up to an 11 on a 10-point scale," a close relative commented.
But sometimes a surprisingly simple method enables such "overreactive" people to begin to respond appropriately.
Many people tend to magnify situations, resulting in unnecessary anxiety, misery, and emotional upset. And most of us are familiar with the phenomenon of disturbing ourselves by making mountains out of molehills: Instead of recognizing that something is merely annoying, frustrating, or somewhat irritating, and responding appropriately, we can blow the incident out of proportion, bothering the people who experience our upset, and usually ending up feeling dreadful about it.
Ronnie offered one typical example: When her family came to dinner one night, her mother-in-law commented that the mashed potatoes were lumpy. Even if the mother-in-law was a regular critic, surely this put-down should not have warranted more than a tinge of irritation in Ronnie, perhaps to be shared later with her husband. Instead, she made herself feel terribly insulted, hurt, and miserable.
Stop and Take Your Temperature
If Ronnie had simply paused a moment to take her "emotional temperature," she might have been more able to keep her response in proportion.
To use your own “emotional thermometer,” imagine a scale from 0 degrees to 100.
Zero means that everything is going well—there’s no undue tension, and you're generally feeling fine, while 100 denotes something truly catastrophic, maybe even life-threatening. Zero might reflect how you feel lounging in a hammock, while 90 or more could indicate the loss of a job, the decision to divorce, or the death of a loved one.
How many degrees did Ronnie’s mother-in-law's dinner-table remark warrant? Probably no more than about 10. But Ronnie's reaction indicated that she give it a rating of at least 80; on another occasion, when her six-year-old son was held afterschool for using a curse word in class, her reaction registered as if it deserved a rating of 60 to 70 degrees. Had she stopped and gauged the incident on her emotional thermometer, she might have better calibrated her perspective and not have overreacted.
What to Do
Using your thermometer is simple but can be very effective: Whenever you feel upset, ask yourself to come up with a logical number on the emotional thermometer—ask yourself if the strength of your feeling should be a 10, more than 20 or 30, or maybe as high as 60 or 70, and if your gut reaction is proportional to that temperature.
"Whenever I am feeling angry or upset," one of my clients told me, "I have learned to ask myself if I am reacting or overreacting. This helps me come up with a rational number which, in turn, changes my feelings because the number is usually less than I first thought!”
The problem, clearly, is mislabeling. As the noted psychologist Albert Ellis often said, it is common for people to "catastrophize" or "awfulize" and overreact by calling something terrible, awful, or dreadful when it is merely irritating or inconvenient.
There is great truth to the adage, "As you think, so shall you feel.” The next time you are upset over something, try to establish an appropriate number on the emotional thermometer and see if you find yourself feeling less distressed.
Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!
Copyright Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.