Am I overreacting to his overreactions?

Hi, Carolyn:

I understand that telling someone “you’re overreacting” is a cheap way to dismiss someone’s feelings, but what if they really are? Frequently?

I’ve had many conversations with a family member about what he feels is my insensitive, abrasive communication style. I can see his point sometimes, but I also notice he reacts the same way to traffic, loud children at the grocery store and political news reports. His reactions seem overpitched in general.

When he’s mad at me yet again because I made an offhand general comment (NOT aimed at him) about the house being a mess, what do I do here?

— Overreacting to Overreacting

So he reacts the same way to traffic, loud children and politics. To call that overreacting, though, is to transform a fact — the similarity of his responses — into a judgment that his reactions are too much. That you’re fine, he’s jumpy. That you’re right, he’s wrong.

That’s not fair. He doesn’t need to calibrate his reactions to please you — any more than you need to adjust your communication style to please him.

Each of you gets to decide how to communicate, and each of you gets to decide how to respond to the other person — anything from not reacting at all to leaving.

On your side of the fence, you do have some choices on how to respond to his (over)reactions: “I’m sorry I come across that way”; “I don’t mean to be insensitive or abrasive.” If you’re close enough, even talk about it: “I don’t mean to upset you. I suspect we just have very different communication styles. Would it help if we met halfway — I try to watch my tone, and you try giving me the benefit of the doubt?”

By offering that, neither of you has to surrender or apologize who you are, but both of you get validation.

If even that does nothing to ease the friction, and if this is a family member with whom you share a home — versus Mildly Grating Uncle Twitchy — then you might want to consider calling in a referee. A session or two with a family therapist could help interpret for you so each of you is able to understand the other’s language — even if you don’t ever care to speak it.


Dear Carolyn:

I became depressed this year, to the point of needing medication, and withdrew from a lot of social contacts. A friend of 20 years, an upbeat, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of person, always confident, always capable, wasn’t very understanding.

I am doing better now, but I find myself reluctant to re-establish contact with her. I have always felt I was not up to her standards, and I don’t know if I want to see her on a regular basis again. Should I contact her?

— Checked out

Nope, not if you don’t miss her friendship. A legitimate part of depression treatment — actually, of being human and not making oneself miserable — is identifying people who suck the life out of you and choosing not to engage them.

If you do miss her, then you have to decide whether there’s enough of a chance you can educate her on the bootstraps fallacy to justify trying.

Even if that’s a “yes,” sustaining your recovery is your priority; it’s OK not to contact her until there’s no question whether you “should.”

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Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax

Syndicated Advice Columnist
Advice Columnist Carolyn Hax takes your questions and tackles your problems.

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