How often do you think:
I don’t know what came over me. Why did I get so angry at her?
I shouldn’t feel this way. I’m just being stupid.
How often does someone say to you:
What was that all about? He was just trying to be nice.
Over-reactions and escalating-reactions (reacting to your own or someone else’s reactions) have negative affects on you, your partner, your relationships, friends, and colleagues. These reactions:
- add mental stress which affects our sense of self worth
- add emotional stress which affects our relationships
- add physiological stress which affects our bodies and health
To make things worse, this stress is heaped on top of all the environmental, economic, physical, and existential stress we must deal with through no fault of our own. Wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate some of this stress from your life? Wouldn’t it make you happier to be more relaxed and even-tempered?
The only way to do this is to understand what’s going on when you over-react or take part in escalating reactions.
A personal story…
I was in my early forties and working on a side business of making poured concrete countertops. I was working out of my garage and had done a few jobs for friends. I had just gotten a contract to build and install kitchen counters for a house under construction. I needed to get into the house for measurements so I called the builder to schedule a time. He asked if I had insurance and I said that I didn’t and added that “I’m new to all this” and was hoping he would tell me what I needed. The builder, apparently, wasn’t in a mentoring mood that day because he told me that if I’m going to be in business I’d better “do my homework.” This instantly triggered an emotional and physiological reaction. I went from cool and calm to angry, frustrated, and upset in a 1 split second. I threw the pencil that was in my hand against the wall with all my might (thankfully I had the phone in my left hand because if it had been in my right I would have hurled that, instead). Then the tears started.
I was a grown man over 40 years old yet I was reduced to tears by someone telling me to “do my homework”! What’s up with that?
It’s a little complex…
Let’s bring a little psychology into this. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who founded depth psychology, would say that I had been caught in a complex.
What is a complex?
I’m sure you’ve heard of an “inferiority complex” and you probably know someone who has one. This person is constantly undermining himself and putting himself down. But he doesn’t do it consciously. In fact, he usually acts over-confident or aggressive. However, this is a compensation for his unconscious feelings of inadequacy.
A complex is actually a separate personality hiding inside your unconscious. (Don’t panic! I’m not talking about “split personality” or “multiple personalities.” A complex is nothing like that. It’s perfectly normal to have complexes and, yes, everyone does have them.) In a flash, it can pop out and take control of your personality before you even realize it’s there. It has a physiological effect, too. It can upset your stomach, affect your breathing and pulse, turn you into a raging bull or a sobbing mess. When it’s had its fun, it goes back into hiding leaving you holding the bag. You now have to clean up its mess and deal with the chaos and consequences of its actions. Sneaky little bugger!
Getting back to my experience, you can see that this is exactly what happened to me. A complex jumped out of hiding, hijacked my personality, and then retreated. Fortunately, in this instance my complex didn’t yell at the builder or cause damage by throwing something heavier than a pencil. But they can and other times they do!
How about a game of darts?
Of course, Carl Jung was not the first person to talk about complexes. Since we’ve all got them and always have, every great student of human nature has had a term that describes them. The Buddha used the metaphor of “darts” to explain that
pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.
Think about going through life without experiencing physical pain. No headaches, no stubbed toes, no aching muscles after a workout. Sounds pretty nice, right? But what if you lean on a hot stove and don’t feel it? Or what if your appendix burst? Pain is the only way you could tell something was wrong; without pain you would die.
The only way to avoid all mental and emotional pain would be to not develop bonds to or relationships with other people. After all, if you don’t care about someone then you don’t hurt when they hurt and their actions cannot hurt you emotionally. But our ancestors learned the great advantage that bonds and relationships provide for survival and well-being. For us, it is “only natural” to connect with people and so it is “only natural” to feel pain when others are hurting.
Sometimes this is hard to understand because our culture is anti-pain.
We often take an aspirin to get rid of a headache without understanding why we got it in the first place. We may take heartburn medicine to get relief instead of changing our diet to prevent the heartburn in the first place. A few years ago, I started developing leg and back pain. My mother suffered for a long time with the same kind of pain and I went to the doctor to ask what I could do to prevent its getting worse. All he did was write me a prescription for Ibuprofen.
Pain is the “first dart” which is thrown at us and hurts us. It is inevitablesimply because we are human beings doing what human beings do.
The Buddha also talked about a “second dart” which follows the first. This dart, however, is optional because-here’s the kicker-we throw it at ourselves! This second dart is our reaction to the pain of the first dart.
I’m reminded of the story of the two monks who were washing their bowls in the river. They notice a scorpion that had fallen into the water and was drowning. The first monk immediately reached down and lifted the scorpion out of the water. In the process he was stung. Again, the scorpion fell into the water. Again, the monk lifted it out of the water and, again, the monk was stung.
The second monk asked, “Don’t you realize the scorpion will sting you every time?”
The first monk answered, “Yes, that is what scorpions do.”
The second monk asked, “Then why do you continue to save it?”
The first monk replied, “Because that is what I do.”
Did the first monk experience pain? Yes. Did he suffer? No. Why? Because he didn’t throw the second dart at himself: he didn’t react to the first dart. The scorpion wasn’t stinging him, the scorpion was simply stinging. Can you see the difference?
That driver who squeezes in between me and the car ahead is simply doing what a hurried driver does. She is not doing it to me. When I see, in my mirror, that driver speeding up and I realize that he’s going to try and squeeze in to get out of the slower lane, the first dart is his selfishness and inconsiderateness. But the moment I press down on the accelerator is when I throw that second dart at myself. I think, “he’s not going to get in front of me!” and start following the car ahead closer than I should, closer than is safe. It’s now become a race and I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose. And I do suffer a defeat when he manages to squeeze in ahead of me and that makes me mad. But it wasn’t a race. He’s one car ahead of me now and he’ll hit the next red light 2 seconds before I do.
That second dart, experienced as senseless useless rage, takes a toll on my body and mind. I feel it the rest of the drive home and can no longer concentrate on the problem I was trying to work through or listen to my favorite radio program. I’m holding this stress in my body and mind which shouldn’t be there in the first place. I’m in a bad mood when my kids greet me at the door. Now, it’s not only affecting me but them, as well.
There are many, many more examples of these second darts-we are actually quite adept at throwing them! You say something critical, but well-meaning, to your partner who is caught off guard and reacts with anger (they’ve thrown a dart at themselves). But then you react to their anger with anger of your own (now you’ve thrown a dart at yourself). This may even ping-pong back and forth several times until doors are slammed and couches are slept on. But why?
Isn’t it better to stop the escalation before it starts? Won’t it make both of you happier if you can take a deep breath and say to yourself, “He’s just reacting to what I’ve said and that’s ok. He’s not mad at me. He was just caught off guard. If I don’t throw another dart, it’ll stop right here. He’ll calm down and we can talk about it.”
Easier said than done…
Well, yes it is. Our reactions are just that-reactions! We don’t think about them, they just happen. And that’s the first of our 4 stages:
The complex has completely caught you.
You throw that second dart and you don’t even realize it.
Now, what do you think happens when you throw a dart at yourself but don’t realize it was you who threw it? Exactly! You think someone else threw it. That’s only logical. There is a dart sticking in my back. Someone threw it. I certainly didn’t. So, she threw it at me!
This stage is the most difficult to work with because we are talking about reactions and reactions, by definition, happen very quickly. The only way to start is by using hindsight (after all, it’s 20/20!). After the fact, watch the instant replay.
Here are some steps to follow to help you get past stage one:
- Write down a list of clues that tell you when a complex has popped up or you’ve thrown that second dart. This is when you need to pay attention to what just happened. Here are some examples: » Someone just told me that I overreacted to someone or something. » I just thought, “I’m being stupid thinking that” or “I shouldn’t feel this way, he’s only… ” or “Where did that come from?” » I just got reallyangry all of a sudden.
- Watch the instant replay without judging yourself. Think about your reactions and what triggered them. Was there a particular word that you reacted to? Or situation? Or person? How did your body feel as the reactions started? Did it start in your stomach? Or chest? Did you get nervous? Or restless? Or agitated?
- Start being consciously aware of your body and feelings when the triggers are present. With practice you can begin to notice the feelings that precede the reactions.
- Don’t get discouraged if you can’t stop the reactions. Remember, this is the most difficult step. Feel good about yourself as you begin to become aware of the reactions-that is a giant improvement in itself!
- Start with one trigger. We all have multiple complexes and a whole quiver full of darts we can launch at ourselves. Take it slow and don’t try to tackle too much at once.
- Ask for help. Sit down with your partner and agree on a simple sign that you can give each other when you notice the other overreacting. This way, there is no verbal confrontation and you can do this subtly when others are around. This will be your cue to watch the instant replay. Or, talk with a trusted friend who was there and watch the instant reply together. An objective observer will often notice more about what happened than the person emotionally involved. Your friend may be able to help you figure out what the trigger was or describe your body language which is a clue to what you were feeling.
A personal story…
I was on the board of directors for a non-profit organization and had begun assuming more responsibilities including some leadership roles. I was starting to catch glimpses of my behavior in certain situations and didn’t like what I saw. I knew that I was letting my complexes act out but didn’t have an objective point of view about them. So, I invited one of the other board members to coffee so we could talk about how I was coming across in the meetings. We weren’t particularly close friends but I knew I could count on his telling me the truth. We talked for a bit and I told him what I was after. He paused and asked me, “Do you want the truth?” That told me I wasn’t going to like what I heard so I braced myself and said, “Yes.” He told me, “You look like a spoiled little child pouting because you didn’t get your way.” Wow! That comment stung quite a bit but it was also very helpful. Now that I knew what my body language was saying, I knew exactly what feelings to watch out for. I could, from then on, pinpoint what was happening inside as a complex was being triggered. That was an immense help in getting past stage one.
Caught in the act…
In stage one, we are totally helpless to do anything to stop throwing second darts atourselves. But we’re making great progress in realizing, after the fact, what’s happened. And if we keep at this and continue monitoring ourselves, especially in trigger situations, we’ll find that we’re able to realize what’s happening while it’s happening. This is the second of our 4 stages:
The complex has caught you but you realize it while it’s happening.
You throw that second dart but know you threw it before the dart lands.
While stage one may be the most difficult to get past, stage two is the mostdifficult to live through. In stage two, you realize that you’re overreacting and being ridiculous but you can’t yet stop yourself.
I think another personal story will illustrate this quite nicely. But first, a little background.
My father complex is a 50’s sitcom. Not only does “father know best” but “father is always right and must not be questioned.” The most poignant example from my childhood took place one day when I was in 6th or 7th grade. I asked my dad to buy me some craft sticks (aka popsicle sticks) for a project. When he came home from work he told me the sticks were on the dining room table. I looked on the table and all I saw was a package of wooden clothes pins. What did I do? Well, I picked them up, walked into the kitchen where he was sitting, and thanked him profusely. He laughed and told me to look again. Sure enough, the craft sticks were there.
All was well, but in that moment when, as far as I knew, he had made a mistake and bought the wrong thing, my father complex took over and I defended my father despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Now, left to its own devices, a complex will only get stronger. So, no surprise that 30 years later my father complex is even stronger and attaches itself to other father figures. One such surrogate is Carl Jung-I’ve become a student of his and I look up to him as an authority. I clearly remember one day when a group of us were discussing one of Jung’s writings. Two women were commenting on Jung’s bias against women and expressing their unmet expectation that he should have been more progressive. I was instantly caught in stage one and began defending him as a “product of his times” and pointing out all his other very progressive ideas and going on about his not being a god but a man. I was quite animated and dismissive.
Then, I switched into stage two. It was as if part of me was able to sit back and watch the other part of me overreact. I couldn’t do anything about it but I was able to watch myself in the tirade and chuckle about how foolish I was being. “What an ass you are, Ken!” I kept thinking to myself. Afterward, I apologized to the women and to the group and explained a little about my how my father complex “caught” me.
It was quite humbling to be aware of my complex and witness its over-the-top behavior. But it was also very empowering to see progress past stage one.
It is important to maintain a non-judgmental attitude toward ourselves both while and after the complex acts out. As in stage one, this is all part of being human.
Nip it in the bud…
As we get better and better at catching ourselves in the middle of an overreaction, it naturally gets easier to catch that reaction as it begins. This is the third stage:
You feel the complex’s reaction begin but are able to quiet it down.
You pull back your arm to throw the dart but decide not to.
In stage three, you feel the irritation and the complex is triggered, but you are able to quickly de-energize it before it gets out of control. You are in tune with your body and know when and where to place your awareness. And if your awareness is present you are able to assert your conscious will and stop yourself from throwing the second dart.
Just think of the stress that your body is not experiencing because you are in stage three. Think about the embarrassment you avoid and the apologies you won’t need to give because you don’t overreact to situations.
When you get here, your body is happier, your mind is happier, your partner is happier relationships are happier, your colleagues are happier. Most important, perhaps, you are happier, calmer, and more even-tempered.
And this is where I am with my father complex-for the most part. I’m still only human and so am not perfect. But, in trigger situations, I listen to what my body is telling me and can feel the reaction starting to ramp up. That’s my cue to take a breath, sit back, unfold my arms, and relax. This let’s me really listen to and hear what the other person is saying and I can then choose what to do. In stages one and two, I had no choice.
Now I do. I can either let them speak and have their say. Or, I can formulate a rational counter argument and deliver it calmly. I can only do this because I am in control of myself and caught the reaction in time.
I get a really good feeling in these situations. I know I am coming across to others as mature and rational. Plus, there’s a feeling of power in having conquered something that had me so much in its control. It’s definitely worth a pat on the back for sticking to it and getting to this point.
Nothing to see here…
As we get better and better at catching ourselves before our reactions get out of hand, we naturally start moving into the next stage: we realize that the reaction, itself, is no longer necessary.
Complex? What complex?
Darts? Sorry, I left them in my other pants.
After all, if we are able to stop our reactions as they are just starting, then the reactions are not necessary. And if the reactions are not necessary, then the trigger situation is really no longer a trigger situation. It may very well still be painful but that’s OK because, remember, pain is inevitable. We’ve made the choice to not make things worse.
Now, I’ll be honest and say that I think this stage is a great goal to set for yourself, but don’t expect to be able to say “I’ve done it! I’m in stage four 24/7” anytime soon. I believe that a few people make it-the Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi are three that come to mind immediately-but even getting close is worth it.
Self assessment time…
Time for the inevitable reality check. What stage are you in? Most likely, you’re in different stages in different areas. Not everyone’s father complex is a strong as mine; yours may be even stronger. But start at the beginning and go through the steps outlined in stage one.
What areas need improvement?
In what areas are you going to need some help?
Identify some people who can help-your partner or a friend. Someone close to you and with whom you interact regularly will be able to provide the most valuable input. It is very important that you work with someone you trust and who can be brutally honest with you in a caring and non-judgmental way. You will not like everything you hear, so be prepared for that.
Above all, approach this in a self-nurturing way. Remember, everyone has complexes and everyone throws those second darts. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be human. There is no blame and no one is at fault.
Concentrate on all the benefits of going through this process: more happiness, less stress, better relationships, an even temperament. Plus the feelings of pride and power that come along with accomplishing something.
Ken Buch is an artist, playwright, writer, and blogger [http://www.psychologyofme.com]. He wrote and performed two plays in the 2012 KC Fringe Festival: ” The Melancholy Monologues,” a one-man show about depression, and “A Perfect 89,” a 10-minute play touching on the Sadean idea of “inspection of the innocent.” His acrylic painting, “Yellow Nude,” was published in the 2012 issue of Kansas City Voices. He writes and presents lectures on Jungian Psychology for the Kansas City Friends of Jung and other Jung societies around the country. His repertoire includes introductory classes on Jung’s psychology, the psychology of religion, and creativity. He holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering.