The Bubble of "Overreaction"

Most people have experienced, either within themselves or with others, a moment where they felt someone was overreacting to a situation. There are explosive, loud, messy overreactions and subtle overreactions where we might judge that another person's response or even our own isn't justified based on the situation. With the more subtle reactions, I'm envisioning how we might be confused by our own response to the perceived tone of a text message, our anxiety surrounding an upcoming flight or a reactionary snap at a friend who unknowingly said something that struck a nerve.

The more I engage in Systemic Constellation work and witness how myself and others react to what life presents, the stronger my conviction is that when we label something as 'overreaction' we are viewing ourselves in a limited bubble.

In this case, the inside of the bubble is filled with a major presupposition - that every person is starting from more or less the same place. When someone cuts you off in traffic, there's an acceptable level of anger you can have and a response where you've gone too far. There's an acceptable amount of fear you should feel in a dark room, and a level of response where you've overstepped. So when we act out of accordance with these rules of thumb it can be confusing. It's at these times that we may reflexively ask ourselves a pretty perceptive question: "where did that come from?"

When I work with the influence of family and ancestry via Systemic Constellations and read studies in the field of Epigenetics the picture of who we are and what guides our behavior becomes dramatically broader and more complex. To give a glimpse, in 2013, researchers trained a subset of mice to avoid the smell of a cherry blossom scent by (sadly) shocking them along with introducing the scent. Then they allowed the mice to proliferate and studied the original group's grandchildren. What they found was that the grandchildren were more likely to exhibit physiological fear reactions when the cherry blossom scent was introduced compared to the control group. The trauma of being shocked and the associated smell the grandparents generation experienced was passed down to the grandchildren who had not experienced the electric shocks themselves. [Dias BG, Ressler KJ. Parental olfactory experience. Nature Neuroscience. 2013 Dec 9]

Who doesn't have trauma in their ancestry? What person doesn't have a lineage that includes violence and war? Or for that matter, a lineage that includes hatred, depression, anxiety and all forms of suffering we see today?

This study aligns very closely with what I'm witnessing in my work - which is that trauma is passed down even when it's not spoken of. Perhaps especially when it's not spoken of.

This is why I share that our ideas of what constitutes an overreaction are, at best, limited. When a person flies into rage when they are ignored in conversation, where is that coming from? Where does jealousy come from? Or anxiety? Sure, most of us can connect the dots with how our childhood experiences influence our present life. But I'm witnessing that it goes much further.

How we interact with our world can look like overreaction because we struggle to acknowledge, or explicitly deny, the vastness of what's going on behind the scenes. In a sense, your reaction is always in accord with the experience because what you bring to your life is more complex than the story of one lifetime. You're bringing the sum total of the lifetimes of your ancestors. And that likely includes the ancestors beyond grandmother and grandfather. If someone is acting in a way that looks inappropriate or unjustified in the present moment, broadening the lens to include those who came before seems to have the uncanny ability to show that the reality is just the opposite.

The good news is that acknowledgement of what came before can make a direct impact on the present. It's a shift to a 'pro-inclusion' approach to who we are. In education, inclusion is the philosophy that schools and communities benefit when students with special needs are included in the general population classrooms instead of being sectioned off into separate classes. When this happens, all students experience an education that more honestly reflects our diverse world where we learn with and from everyone that's around us. When it comes to individuals, I'm suggesting that we benefit when we include the aspects of ourselves that we may have sectioned off, denied or forgotten. In other words, what sits outside the bubble.

When we connect to both our immediate family and larger lineage, stepping into this state of inclusion means looking at those who came before and allowing all parts of them to have a place in our identity. Especially the parts we dislike. There's an adage in healing communities that "what we resist, persists." Inclusion is the antidote to this. It's a process. And the challenge is that for virtually all people living today, when we look at our broader ancestral picture it includes not only the victims of history but the perpetrators as well.

When we undergo this process an unconscious inner movement occurs where we naturally possess more compassion for other people, our parents, our families and most notably, ourselves. Without any conscious effort, we see the actions and reactions of people in a different light.