We all over-react at times. I know I do!
Maybe someone is late, and you get really angry instead of a little annoyed. Or your colleague gives you constructive feedback, and you feel decimated inside. You don't know why you had such a big reaction.
What if your "overreactions" are actually clues to unpack?
In today’s episode I walk you through an incredibly practical way to use the power of big emotional reactions in the present to help you heal from events in the past. When you decode the information in your overreactions, you can finally unburden yourself.
1. The main reasons we overreact (8:27)
2. Why we pick up burdens from the past (16:36)
3. The effects of parentification (18:55)
4. How to become a cycle-breaker (23:27)
5. A real-time exercise in unburdening (29:20)
Do you have questions for Dr. Alison? Leave them here.
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Hey everyone, and welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You Podcast. I'm so glad you're here. I'm so glad you're joining me for this whole series, Five Steps to Navigating Overwhelming Emotions.
We have two steps left and today's is so important. We're going to touch on so many things that so many of you ask me about regularly. I love today's topic. We're going to get into this question of how do I break cycles and what does that have to do with my current day emotion?
Now, listen, if you are not already subscribed to The Best of You Podcast, please take a moment and subscribe to it right now. You can click the plus sign or the follow sign wherever you listen to the podcast. When you subscribe to it, you'll get reminders every time there's a new episode so that you don't miss one. Now, if you're on my email list, I also send out email reminders, but the best way to never miss one of these episodes is to click that subscribe button.
So what we've talked about so far is the very first step is to focus on an emotion, especially an emotion you don't like, we want to make them go away. But the first step is to actually stop yourself long enough to focus on it, which is immediately then followed by the second step of befriending. You focus on the emotion and you befriend it. You welcome it. It's there for a reason.
We're not saying that you welcome it to let it take you over, but you welcome it so that you can figure out why it's there and what you need to do on behalf of that emotion.
The third step, you invite God into your experience of that emotion. So now you're aware of the emotion, you're extending compassion toward the emotion, and you've invited God into your experience of that emotion. If you think about it, all of this is leading toward a wiser way through it.
These emotions are there for a reason. They’re cues that, when harnessed, can help guide you into healthier decision making, healthier actions in your day to day life.
Today's step is the step of unburden. Sometimes these emotions get complicated. Sometimes they're deep. They're rooted in pain. All the way from the past. In this case, the emotions are bigger than the immediate set of circumstances.
You might notice that you're more angry or more sad or more anxious than the actual situation in front of you warrants. If that's the case, that's just a cue that you need to do some work of unburdening. You've picked up a burden or two, and I'm going to get into what I mean by that.
We need to take a little more time to go deeper and unburden that part of you that's picked up this pain from the past so that you can free that part of you from the unnecessary weight of the emotion. There's a quote from my book with Kimberly Miller called Boundaries For Your Soul. There's a quote where we say, suffer what you have to suffer, but don't suffer what you don't have to suffer.
What that means is you might feel a little sad. Or a little anxious, or a little frustrated. That might make sense. That's suffering a little bit, but sometimes when these emotions get bigger than the situation warrants, it's because we're suffering something that's unhealed from the past. We're bringing past pain into present pain, which makes it twice the pain, and we don't need to experience that extra weight of pain, so we can unburden that emotion.
We're just experiencing a normal range of emotions without that excess baggage from the past. So with that being said, let's dive into this fourth step of unburdening a painful emotion.
The first question that I usually get asked when we're talking about unburdening an emotion is how do I know that I need to do this work? How do I know that one of my emotional responses has gotten extreme? The answer is, it's when you have an overreaction emotionally.
I want to be clear, there's no shame in this. We all overreact. When someone is overreacting, it's just the reality that you're getting more emotionally charged than the situation warrants. Let me give you some examples of what I mean by that.
A classic example is you lose your temper or yell over a minor mistake. Maybe one of your kids spills their milk, or maybe a spouse forgets about an appointment and you just lose it and you yell or you get really angry at them. That's a classic example of an overreaction. The situation warrants frustration. It might even warrant anger, but it doesn't warrant that extreme anger response.
Here’s another example that has to do with anxiety. Maybe a work meeting that you've been really nervous about gets changed. The schedule gets changed on you. While that change might evoke anxiety, an overreaction might be if it evokes extreme anxiety or even panic. Same thing if someone's late, maybe a friend is late to meet you for coffee.
While you feel a little bit stressed, you're a little bit worried. Where are they? An overreaction would be that you start to catastrophize and you start to imagine that they've been in a car accident and they're at the hospital when really they're just 10 minutes late. So that would be an example of an extreme emotion where you're having an emotional response that doesn't exactly match the situation in front of you.
A third example is that you get extremely sad over a minor disappointment. So for example, maybe you don't get invited to a neighbor's get together and it's disappointing and you're bummed out. But an overreaction might mean that you get really depressed and you start feeling like you're just never gonna be included anywhere.
It really was just one gathering. Or maybe someone at work or someone in your family gives you some constructive feedback and you just break down crying. You just get so sad. You have an extreme emotional response to a situation that really warranted a mild feeling of disappointment or a little bit of hurt, but not a major reaction.
That's what we mean by an overreaction. It just means that we have an emotional reaction that's not proportionate to the situation at hand. Again, there's no shame in this. This is a cue that we might need to unburden some part of us that's experiencing the big emotion.
The first thing we have to do is look at the underlying reasons for why the emotion might be so big. So, here are some of the reasons you might be having these big reactions:
It might just be stress or emotional strain. This is really common during the holidays, and we use that phrase, sometimes it's the straw that breaks the camel's back. The thing that happened hit you at a moment where you just didn't have anything left and you exploded in a big emotional reaction. Now, if that's the case, you will know, because pretty quickly you'll realize, oh my gosh, I completely overreacted.
I'm so sorry. I'm just stressed out. ‘Cause there's a lot going on. Here's why. You'll move on. That in and of itself is an unburdening. You recognize, oh, I'm carrying a lot of weight and this one, and this one thing was just too much.
So you unburden the weight of that shame. You name it, you honor it, and you let your loved one know, hey, this is what happened, and you're good. You repair. So that could be one of the reasons you have a big reaction, but today, what I want to get into is the reality that sometimes there's a deeper reason that you had a big reaction.
Something happened in the past that is just similar enough to this situation in the present, that those emotions from the past are sneaking in and ambushing you in the present situation. So I'm going to unpack this a little bit for you, but this is really common. You have an overreaction in the present because there's something in the past that still hasn't been unburdened, that you still haven't fully healed from, and that part of you wants to get healed, so it sneaks into the present, hijacks you in the moment.
You have this big reaction. You can't figure out why. Well, in this case, it's what we call a trail head. It's a cue that you need to look back and follow the trail to what is the actual event that happened in the past that is actually related to the big emotion that you didn't get to have back then, and you needed to have back then so that you could heal and repair.
Okay, so here's an example of what I mean by this. Let's go to the situation where your anxiety gets really big when someone changes the schedule. Let's say in this case you and a few friends were planning a get together, you've been looking forward to it, you've been so excited about it, and suddenly your friend backs out. They have to change the schedule, and it's for a very understandable reason, and you're disappointed by it, but you have a huge reaction to it.
You're angry, you're upset, you feel abandoned, you feel betrayed, you feel almost inconsolable. In that situation, the real thing that happened is that you've had a history of people canceling on you, of people ghosting you.
In fact, the history with this particular emotion of feeling abandoned might go all the way back to childhood where around Christmas time, there was a family gathering and you were so excited about it.
Maybe your parents had a history of being erratic or inconsistent in their behavior and they just canceled the event, didn't explain it to you, and you were just left in the dark.
Suddenly it's just gone and you're alone and nobody ever explained to you what happened. Nobody ever talked you through it and you were just left alone with all that disappointment and all those feelings of sadness. No one ever talked you through it and helped you heal that wound.
In fact, maybe that was a pattern. Maybe that happened time and time again, where there was just this inconsistency, where your parents were coming and going and no one stuck to this schedule, and you never knew what was happening, and you look forward to something, and then it'd be canceled, or one parent wouldn't show up, and for whatever reason you just constantly felt alone and abandoned and disappointed.
You've never really dealt with that. You never really had a chance to process that trauma and the memory of that feeling of abandonment still lives in your body. So when something happens in your present life that is just similar enough to that past experience, it triggers that backlog of emotions from deep inside of you.
Instead of just getting a little bit of disappointment, you get that whole geyser of emotions that's been buried inside of you for decades in some cases. You have this huge reaction to what really in the present tense was just a minor disappointment. So that's just an example of how painful events from the past can create these burdened emotions that are just buried deep inside.
When something happens in your present life that even loosely resembles one of those painful events from the past, those burdened emotions take the opportunity to just show up in a big way.
The good news is that when that happens, it's an opportunity to give yourself the care that you actually need. To unburden those painful emotions from the past so you can separate what happened in the past out from these very normal, very real, more manageable disappointments in the present.
This is the heart of the work that is so often done in therapy. It's noticing these big reactions and helping you identify what is rooted in your present circumstances and what is residual, unhealed pain from the past so that you can disconnect the two and have a normal reaction in your present. Oh, that's disappointing. Or, oh, I'm kind of bummed or, oh, that worries me a little bit, but those emotions match the situation in front of you.
You're not carrying all the weight of those burdens from those past memories. This is an example of a cue that you might need to do some unburdening: it's when your emotions in the present tense are bigger than the situation in front of you warrants.
If you're noticing that, if you're like, man, that is me, I do that. I have these big reactions that I can't figure out why they're so big. I can't figure out why I can't just be a little bit disappointed or a little bit angry or a little bit anxious. You know, because that feels like the normal way to respond to these events.
Please do not beat yourself up or shame yourself. This is just your body, the way that God designed you to give you a cue. Oh, I need to do some unburdening work. I need to do some healing. There's something in my past that maybe needs my attention.
So what do we mean by burdens? Well, the burdens that we pick up are these extreme beliefs or feelings. Sometimes they're physical sensations. Where we'll feel a disproportionate amount of tension or tightness in our stomach. Parts of you have taken on as a result of painful experiences from the past.
You can develop these burdens at any time, but often they develop in childhood. When you're a child, your mind can't process complex emotions or complex situations. So when something hard happens, even in the best of parenting situations, you make sense of those events, you often interpret those events in ways that aren't helpful.
That's when you pick up a burden, a belief burden, or an emotional burden that you were never meant to carry, but it never gets healed at the actual place where the injury occurred. Parts of your soul are still hanging on to these burdens from the past. So I want to give you some examples of these burdens. if you want more examples, there's two pages devoted to these examples and how to resolve these examples in Boundaries for Your Soul in the chapter on unburdening.
So here are some examples. My parents are fighting. It must be my fault. As a kid, your parents are fighting all the time. You hate it. No one's really naming it. No one's really helping you understand what's happening.
So you tell yourself, and this is so common, it must be my fault. If I could behave better, if I could be more perfect, my parents wouldn't behave in this way. So you take in that burden and it helps you explain a really hard situation, even though it's not true.
There is no correlation between your behavior and your parents fighting. But you tell yourself that because it helps you make sense of a painful situation, you carry that burden with you all the way into adulthood. So whenever anybody's fighting around you, you feel like it's your fault. It must be my fault that there's conflict. Even though it has nothing to do with you.
Anytime you're with people who are fighting or there's conflict, even normal conflict or healthy conflict, you start getting so anxious inside because in your mind, this is catastrophic. I can't let this happen. Because you're still back as that young child where it really was catastrophic to be a child witnessing two adults argue and fight and be angry with each other without anybody caring for you through that.
Another common burden that you pick up as a child and bring into adulthood is, I am responsible for everyone around me. Now, I bet a lot of you have that one. I am responsible for everyone around me. Now, listen, in a small dose, we are responsible to some degree to be good to the people around us in a normal way.
But let me walk you through how that oftentimes is rooted in a belief burden. You're a young child. The caregivers in your life aren't taking care of themselves.
Maybe one of your parents has an undiagnosed mental illness and you watch them not really be able to get out of bed or not really be able to care for themselves or be really erratic emotionally and you take on the responsibility for that. You start parenting your parent as a young child.
There's a term for this in psychology. It's called parentification. You become the parent for your parent, and it's never a child's responsibility to parent their parent. A child has a basic need of being cared for and loved and nurtured by an adult caregiver.
When that role gets inverted and the child is asked to care for their caregiver, that burden gets formed. It's my responsibility to be responsible for everybody else. That burden can sometimes get translated as, I'm not worthy to receive care from others because as a child, nobody ever cared for you.
You never had a lived experience inside your body of what it feels like to be cared for by an adult, by a parent, and so you tell yourself, oh, I'm not worthy of care. So not only am I responsible for everybody else, I'm also simultaneously not worthy of receiving care.
That's a double whammy of a belief burden. Either one of those is hard enough. But they're both rooted in a situation where as a child, you didn't get the care you needed from a caregiver and you picked up a burden. Listen, this is not conscious. You don't know that you're doing this when you're a young child.
You don't consciously say, wow, it's my job as a five year old to be the most responsible person in the room, to be the most mature person in the room. It's not conscious. It's just what happens. You start to notice that no one else in your household is taking any responsibility for their health or well being and so you do.
You just step up and do it and you tell yourself at some deep level, you internalize the message of, this is what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to be responsible for everyone. You take that with you into adulthood, and you don't know how to let go. You don't know how to let other people take responsibility for what is actually their responsibility.
So these are belief burdens we pick up as young children. We internalize them and they're operating silently under the surface, but they're influencing the ways we show up with others.
Again, let's say you're an adult and you're just overworking to the point of almost harming yourself to do things for other people that are not your responsibility to do for them. Maybe someone comes to you and gives you some constructive feedback and says, hey, I don't want you to do this. I don't want you to micromanage me in this or stop asking me about this or stop trying to do what's mine to do.
You feel incredibly hurt by that when in reality they're actually trying to be helpful. They're trying to say, listen, you don't have to do this for me, but you carry that burden of, that's the only thing I know. I only know how to take responsibility for everybody around me.
So if you try to pry that responsibility away from me, I feel decimated. I don't know what to do with that. I don't know how to let people come alongside and share the weight with me, so you have a big reaction that's rooted in a burden from the past.
Now, here's the thing. Rationally, you may well understand that you shouldn't be thinking or feeling in the way that you do. You may be able to tell me, I get that that thing that happened in the past wasn't my fault. You have some cognitive awareness about it, but the reality is some part of you deep inside may still carry a residual experience of that burden.
When a similar situation happens, that part of you tends to come to the surface. So that's where these steps are iterative. When that happens, you focus on it. Oh, I just had a big reaction. You befriend it. This is a cue. My body's trying to tell me something. Something happened that needs my attention. You invite God into that experience. God, help me understand. Then you can go through this process of unburdening.
So I want to end this episode with a little exercise in unburdening because the best way to do it is to experience it. But before we do that, I want to touch on this idea of cycle-breaking. You may have heard this. It kind of floats around social media from time to time, this idea of being a cycle breaker.
A cycle breaker is someone who works to disrupt and change a negative familial pattern. If you think about it, these patterns get handed down generationally. So, for example, the burdens you picked up as a result of the way you were parented, your parents probably picked up the way they parented from their parents.
So when you break cycles, you work to identify an unhealthy pattern in your family of origin, something that happened that caused you harm. So you work to identify it, heal it in yourself, and then as a result of that, you then no longer pass that same unhealthy pattern down to your own offspring.
So you become a cycle breaker. You stop the pattern. This work of unburdening is really important. As you unburden your own painful emotions and your own painful memories, you're breaking the cycle of a pattern of behaviors.
You're consciously choosing a different path. You're choosing to heal and in doing so you create ripple effects of healing into the people around you, including your own family and the next generations ahead of you.
Here are some examples of what I mean by that. Oftentimes, addiction or misuse, what causes some of these injuries, is in your childhood. When you break a cycle of addiction and you heal and you obtain your sobriety and you no longer use, you're breaking a cycle and you're no longer handing down the damage that comes from substance abuse.
You're healing what happened to you and you're stopping that pattern of injury that occurs in families where their substance misuse from being passed down to the next generation. If there's a pattern of untreated mental illness, such as untreated anxiety or depression in your family, maybe that's the reason that your parent, when you were young, wasn't available to you, or why you don't have a secure attachment.
What you've decided to do is prioritize your own mental health so that you are healing those wounds and as a result, no longer passing down the damages of untreated mental health issues in your family.
It can happen. You can break the cycle of unhealthy conflict where maybe you were really harmed by the way the adults in your life handled conflict. so you, as a result of that, have decided I'm going to become someone who's really good at navigating conflict.
I'm going to unburden and heal the damage that that did to me. Then I'm going to work to create places of healthy conflict in my family going forward. There's so many ways we can become cycle breakers and cycle breaking comes out of this work of unburdening.
It's a byproduct. It's a fruit of this work. As you unburden and heal from the pain of your past, you create a ripple effect of change. You start to show up as a healthier version of yourself and your own family and your healing creates a ripple effect.
When the Bible talks about generational sin, I often think of it as generational trauma. We're passing down the generational trauma of our ancestors. You have an opportunity as you engage in your own healing work to unburden these painful emotions from the past, stopping that generational pattern and ushering in a generation of healing. This is amazing work.
We are part of that together. That's really what this whole podcast is about. It's unleashing a movement of healing because as you heal, you heal everybody around you.
Sometimes parts of us are fearful of unburdening. It's scary. Change is hard. Sometimes we like to keep the status quo. Again, the chapter on unburdening and Boundaries For Your Soul is an invaluable resource, walking you through some of the different fears that you may have about doing this work.
I mentioned this here because I want to say, if you have a deep reservoir of pain from your past, you don't want to do this work alone. This is work you want to do with a therapist or with safe people where you begin to unpack some of the pain from your past.
But it's so important for all of us to do the work of noticing where is there a big reaction, or a big pattern of emotional reactions in my life that I'm just not able to get on top of, and maybe that's a cue that there's some unburdening work I need to do. There's some painful experiences from my past that need to be healed and where I need to do some of the work of unburdening.
So I want to end with an exercise where you can begin to get a glimpse of this work of unburdening. As we walk through this exercise, if you want to pause the podcast, wherever you're listening, to give yourself more time to reflect, just feel free to do that.
Take this at your own pace. I'm going to walk you through some questions so you can just listen and learn, or you can actually try to engage the questions in real time by hitting pause and maybe doing some journaling work as I ask you each of the questions.
Think of a recent situation that evoked a strong reaction in you. Maybe it was at work, maybe it was at home, maybe it was with a friend, but you had maybe an overreaction. Just think about that situation and see if you can work through those first three steps as it relates to the emotion.
What was the emotion? Just focus on the emotion for a moment apart from the situation. Were you angry, were you anxious, were you sad? Were you scared? And then see if you can befriend that emotion. See if you can get curious about it or become compassionate toward it and just kind of notice what that emotion is.
If it feels overwhelming or too extreme, that's a cue that you might need to process this with another person, that you don't want to do this alone, because sometimes that can happen if you're new to this work. But if it feels comfortable to you, just notice the emotion and from a place of compassion and notice what it feels like in your body. You might even notice what it feels like as an image in your mind.
Then as you're connecting to the experience of that emotion, whatever it is, just letting yourself be present to it, you might invite God to be with you in that experience as well, to gain deeper understanding through the power of God's presence. What was that about? That sadness, that anger, that big reaction.
I'm aware of it. I'm connected to it. I'm not shaming myself for it. What was that about God? You're kind of becoming a detective or a student of your own soul. You're becoming aware of the emotion from a healthy distance.
Just notice what that feels like. Let the situation fade away as you tap into the emotion you experienced in that moment. As you're present to that experience of the emotion, whatever it is, begin to ask yourself some unburdening questions.
What is an extreme belief or a message? That goes hand in hand with this feeling. So here's some examples of what I mean by that.
As you're present to the emotion, you might become aware of some messages you tell yourself about the experience that evoked that emotion. For example:
No one ever helps me. I'm always on my own.
It's my fault. I should have tried harder.
No one will ever understand me.
If people are angry, I'm not safe.
If someone is mad at me, it must be my fault.
If someone is disappointed with me, it must be my fault.
If someone ignores me, it's because I'm not worthy.
If things don't go perfectly, I am a complete failure and no one will ever love me.
These are all examples of belief burdens, and notice if any of those types of messages resonate with your experience of that emotion. If so, I want you to make a note of that burden. What is it and what might that part of you that's been carrying the weight of that burden need from you or from God to create what I call a holy reframe? What's a holy, healed, healthy message that that part of you needs to hear?
When you create a holy reframe, I want you to imagine that part of you feeling the emotion as a child. What would a child need to hear in that moment of feeling the weight of that burden? Here are some examples:
Sometimes you feel alone, but there are people willing to help. Let's stay persistent.
It may take time, but someone will understand and love and appreciate you for who you are.
It's uncomfortable when someone is upset with you, but it doesn't mean everything will fall apart. You're safe.
Disappointment is a part of life. It doesn't mean that you did something wrong.
There might be many reasons someone ignored you, but you are always worthy of honor and care.
Criticism can be hard to hear, but it doesn't have to define you.
Take what's helpful to grow and release the rest.
It doesn't have to be perfect to be a success. Let's celebrate the good that we were able to accomplish.
As you reframe those painful burdens, it's really important that you're connecting with the part of you that experienced the big emotion. In that moment, you're reparenting yourself in a way.
You're helping a young part of you release an old burden and recognize that there might be a different way to see this situation. This hurting part of your soul can learn to release some of the weight of that pain that it's been carrying from long ago. You begin to care for yourself in that moment, in the way that maybe no one ever cared for you back then.
This work of unburdening is a process of releasing old messages you may have carried around for decades and replacing them with truer, more beautiful messages infused by God's Spirit. Messages rooted in the truth, that you are enough, you are worthy, you are beloved.
No matter how hard this situation is, you have what it takes in partnership with God's Spirit to face it. It's a process of tenderly attuning to every part of your soul in need of your care from this place of compassionate presence.
Remember, suffer what you have to suffer. There are hard situations that you have to work your way through with your family, with your friends, with the holiday season. But don't suffer what you don't need to suffer.
Take captive every thought, Paul said. It applies to these messages. You tell yourselves in these moments of big emotions, notice what messages you're telling yourself, release those messages and replace them with the truth of your belovedness as a soul created to bear the image of God.