“But isn’t she way overreacting?”.

This post comes from a discussion I was having with someone happily unconnected to professional philosophy.  It concerns something I started thinking about some years ago, when I first heard about Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which was supposed to be the first effective therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder.  I was very curious for a number of reason, not least of which was my perplexity at what could be called that.  And I think the book I’m going to quote from was the only thing at the time that didn’t cost a huge amount.

Still, lots of incidents over the last several years, and recent cyber discussions have reminded me that lots of us use an idea of normal emotional reactions.  And this idea has normative implications. The non-normal is wrong, bad, etc.
so it seems to me useful to remind ourselves that our baseline emotional reactions may vary a great.  One person who has an unpleasant encounter on Thurs may be struggling with it still a week later (or more) while another cannot understand why they cannot get over it.  So the empirically reasonably well-informed  Dialectical Behavioral Therapy tells us

A lot of people struggle with overwhelming emotions. It’s as if the knob is turned to maximum volume on much of what they feel. When they get angry or sad or scared, it shows up as a big, powerful wave that can sweep them off their feet.If you’ve faced overwhelming emotions in your life, you know what we’re talking about. There are days when your feelings hit you with the force of a tsunami. …

There’s a fair amount of research to suggest that the likelihood of developing intense, overwhelming emotions may be hardwired from birth. But it can also be greatly affected by trauma or neglect during childhood. Trauma at critical points in our development can literally alter our brain structure in ways that make us more vulnerable to intense, negative emotions. However, the fact that a propensity to intense emotions is often rooted in genetics or trauma doesn’t mean the problem can’t be overcome.


This sort of reaction is still seen as a problem because one may well have better things to do. And if pathology gets mixed in, it can become very socially destructive.

***this ends the didactic part of this post. What follows might be a quiz. ****

The book is actually full of internet stuff about mindfulness, but I was quit flummoxed by an early exercise. It concerns practicing radical acceptance. This means just accepting what’s happened without judgment or evaluation.

Here’s part of the list:

-Read a controversial story in the newspaper without being judgmental about what has occurred.

-The next time you get caught in heavy traffic, wait without being critical.

-Watch the world news on television without being critical of what’s happening.

-Listen to a news story or a political commentary on the radio without being judgmental.

I actually manage #2. I’m tempted to try a transcendental argument for the impossibility of the others. What do you think?

16 thoughts on ““But isn’t she way overreacting?”.

  1. To complicate matters still more, the appropriate emotional reaction varies from culture to culture.

    In addition, who knows what is the appropriate amount of indignation (the emotion in your examples)? The person who gets very indignant about some injustice which others consider to be trivial may just be ahead of their time: for example, 70 years ago most people would have considered a woman who got indignant because her partner did not help with the dishes to be over-reacting and now most of us consider that to be normal.

    So maybe the borderline personalities among us, who get indignant about injustices which the rest of us consider to be not particularly important, are showing us the way towards a juster society. In general, it’s a good idea to pay attention to “crazy” people, because they often have “something to say” to the rest of us.

  2. The im/possibility may depend on the exact understanding of “acceptance”.
    – Acceptance that “this is how it is right now”, and not necessarily accepting “this is OK / good” (which would actually be a judgement).
    – Not judging / evaluating doesn’t preclude feeling e.g. sadness, despair, hopelessness.
    With these two provisos I (occasionally) manage it, based on NVC rather than CBT though.
    The issue with borderline traits isn’t getting overly upset about social injustices which I agree can be a good thing, but that a person with such traits can have a screaming-and-breaking-things meltdown because they can’t find clean socks or know they’ll be late for an appointment. This is an issue because they report this makes them – often terribly – unhappy.

  3. Sorry, in my previous comment that should have been “some persons with such traits”, I didn’t mean to imply this applies to all.

  4. Delft,

    I’ve lived with borderline people myself and I think one reason that they are so terribly unhappy about going into a rage about not finding clean socks, etc., is that we judge them as over-reacting and they interiorize our judgement. It’s not pleasant to be around someone who goes into a rage about not finding clean socks, to be sure.

    However, in my experience borderline people also go into rages about the slights and insults of daily life, which often involve degrees of injustice or discrimination or abuse of power and which most of us accept as “the way things are”, for example, about “minor” ways that their boss slights them. Most of us tend to accept those slights because it’s not “worthwhile” protesting or because it’s useless to complain, but when one stops and thinks about them, those slights generally involve abuses of power, which perhaps in a hundred years, perhaps not, people will consider unacceptable.

  5. @S.Wallerstein

    As I said before, I agree on the point about injustices.

    On the socks, I don’t. While people’s judgement may be a factor, there are others.
    – There is the actual pain of feeling such rage;
    – there is the feeling of being at the mercy of these emotions which can come out of the blue (as completely mundane events can trigger them);
    – the fact that it leads them to act in ways they later regret;
    – and the measurable effect it has on families, on children in particular, and on relationships of all kinds. And this doesn’t – at least not primarily – stem from judgement: even if I only feel empathy for the person in a rage, it still disrupts my day and my life, and many people at some point find it simply unbearable and leave.

    And when someone starts screaming at or even beating their child* because they (the parent) forgot to wash their own socks – yes, I do feel we can judge the reaction to be inappropriate, even while understanding that on some level the person cannot help it. So the idea we should just accept the reaction and then things would somehow be fine simply doesn’t work for me.

    *again: I don’t mean to imply any person with these traits would do this, but some do.

  6. Delft,

    It can get really strange when the uncontrollable rage about not having washed their socks is directed against you because with the best intentions in the world, you offer to lend them a pair of your clean socks.

  7. Dear Commenters, this has been a fascinating discussion. I hope you don’t take it as criticism that I remind other readers that being born with a tendency to very strong emotional reactions does not make a person borderline. Nonetheless, both healthy and pathological strong reactions can be helped by some of the same relaxation techniques, self-soothing ones, etc.

    No doubt “borderline” applies to a spectrum of cases, but one central type has been studied a lot recently by a team led by Read Montague. What they’ve found is that borderline people are really living in a different social world, since their instinctive grasp of norm violations is quite different from that of much more healthy, socially well-functioning individuals. How it is different is very surprising. See:

    Click to access Science08_perspective.pdf

    I became particularly interested in borderline people in dealing with a case of someone who had tantrums in public (like at the age of 45), but who also would feel entitled to inflict a lot of damage by doing some awful things behind one’s back. One of the very strange things is that this person did not seem to realize that this sort of behavior would kill off relationships. That is, they expected things to revert to normal the next day.

  8. Anne,

    The person I’m thinking of is of approximately the same age as the person you mention and also has very violent public temper tantrums, often about
    “small” injustices, hypocrisies, dishonesties, double standards and abuses of power they perceive (corrrectly, in my opinion) in others (but others do not perceive in themselves), leading others to cut off relationships with the person.

    When I refer to “small injustices…abuses of power”, I refer to “injustices….abuses of power”, that normal people overlook or consider as “the way things are” or not worth
    protesting about, but I’m not at all sure that conventional notions of what injustices are worth protesting about are what should guide us.

    I should mention that the person in question is not entirely consistent in what they get indignant about, which detracts from considering their outbursts of rage as an concerted ethical campaign.

  9. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘impossibility’. Am I right in thining that your inclination to the impossibility of these suggestions is that they would lead to inaction and that is neither desirable nor practical in our lives? Or were you thinking impossibility in the sense that we cannot view without emotion/judgment/attachment?

    As to the former, I think Delft made a great distintion re: understandings of ‘acceptance’. I would also add that I don’t read the list of suggestions as precluding action either. That is, if the goal is to re-train or re-calibrate your emotional barometer, then it seems these very Buddhist suggestions are attempting to get the person to a state of disengaged engagement: where one’s ego is suspended but one is still engaged with and interacting with the world/events. If it’s the latter, and if I remember some long-past research correctly, I think that we DO process everything emotionally first. However, it seems to me that the suggestions are not about how we process, but how we respond. So in that, it seems we have ample evidence that one can view something without immediately judging/expressing feeling.

  10. @annejjacobsen
    I do try to speak of traits, rather than persons or disorders.
    The study is interesting. Total obliviousness of the damage one is causing to a relationship sounds depressingly familiar.

    While conventional notions about injustices evolve, I do think common sense should apply. No, the person who planted that tree 30 years ago did not wilfully ignore that it would cause you some minor inconvenience today, and does not deserve some terrible punishment for it.
    Sometimes, I find the discrepancy between violent protesting of comparatively minor harms / injustices done to oneself and the sense of entitlement to inflict grievous harm on others with impunity very … trying. Time for the mindfulness exercise.

  11. Soon-Ah and Delft, prhaps I’d understand better with reference to an example. E.g, one sees a news broadcast with a cop shooting a young man who has his hands up. The problem for me is that just conceptualizing what is going on seems to involve being something at least very close to being critical. I.e., ‘unarmed young man being shot and killed by cop’ = ‘cop murdering young man’. But saying someone murdered someone looks critical. ( i am being a bit sloppy, but I hope not totally unclear.)

  12. SW, I’ve seen a couple of variations. One kind involved running through halls at a university shouting and screaming and slamming doors. Another two different friends of mine underwent. Suddenly the partner would pull them aside out of earshot and then rant for 30 or 40 min.

    One friend of mine lived briefly with a person I thought was narcissistic. One evening the partner was teasing my friend’s cat. He was warned, but took no notice. Then the cat swiped at him. My friend was severely blamed for having a cat who would hurt the partner. Soon after that my friend began to fear for the cat’s life and moved out.

  13. Anne-

    I think your example is a great one and I’ll run with it. My understanding of the context of the suggestions is that the goal of practicing this radical acceptance is to recalibrate personal emotional responses so that they do not cause the person to suffer (from social censure, guilt, emotion hangovers, etc.)s. So I read the suggestion to “watch world news on television without being critical” as asking one not to allow personal outrage to take over the experience of watching the news. So in watching the news tell of a cop shooting an unarmed young person, you could call it what it was: murder by cop. Identifying something doesn’t seem to necessarily entail reacting to it.

    For me, the suggestions are imprecise. So if I were to edit the suggestion to reflect what I see as the intent, I would say the goal is to watch world news on television and simply observe, not react. Having said all that, I’ve just been reading a bunch of stuff on Buddhism so my interpretation of these suggestions is definitely colored by that reading and as such, might be wrong.

  14. @annejjacobson
    The NVC (non-violent communication) approach is to separate:
    Observation = the facts, what we are seeing, hearing etc. from evaluation “shoot” vs “murder”,
    Feelings from thoughts or judgements “I am devastated” vs “That is terrible / unjust / unacceptable”
    Needs from strategies “I need security” vs “Wilson must go to prison for murder”
    and Requests from Demands (the difference lies in whether or not you can accept the answer “no”)
    In step 1 the neutral observation (that which cannot reasonably be argued with) is a basis for a conversation between two sides, the judgement is not. There are those who would deny that Michael Brown was murdered, and the conversation ends there. It sounds a little strange, but Rosenberg (who developed NVC) successfully used the technique to mediate between groups of Israelis and Palestinians, Hutus and Tutsis, violent offenders and their victims.

    My understanding is that CBT suggests a judgement is an engagement with the question of whether things “should be” this way, and that “this is the way it is now” allows us to disengage. I don’t know how / whether CBT and NBT are related.

    Studies seem to show that attributing blame (judgement) increases and accelerates the anger reaction (which is often the issue), as we get more upset about the same degree of inconvenience depending on what the alleged reason for the inconvenience is. Sorry I don’t have a reference, but by my recollection examples were something like road blocked due to ambulance vs. ill-parked car and waiting in lab due to sudden emergency vs careless planning.

    I would differ with Soon-Ah on the last point. Observing without reacting may the goal of a Buddhist monk who wants to completely disengage from the world. Personally, I can’t watch news about people dying of Ebola, cops killing unarmed teenagers on the street, less-than-minimum-wage employees on strike for a living wage etc. without feeling devastated or sad, and what’s more I wouldn’t want to.

  15. Delft, for the record, CBT is only a part of the DBT, and really has two approaches. One is looking at patterns in one’s thought that harms one. For example, perhaps ones is always imagining catastrophes are about to befall one in a way which leads to one’s being very tense. Another is exposing one to the source of one’s fears and phobias in a way that is supposed to lead to one’s being desensitized. I suppose the exercises I copied might be part of CBT, since they are aimed at altering how one is reacting in a way that makes one’s own emotions more manageable.

    DBT overall is in someways closer to NVC, in so far as I understand either, since both seem directly concerned with how one relates to others.. DBT is based on the idea that borderline people have a huge problem understanding others.

    I was impressed by the little I’ve seen about NVC on the web.

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