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"Am I overreacting?"- You may appreciate a dirty plate metaphor

(Dirty plate metaphor sounds just a bit read on. ;)

There are those times when someone, especially a special someone, doesn't text back, and you start to feel "crazy." It's a seemingly "irrational," "where-is-this-coming-from," and "why-am-I-so-pathetic" kind of NUTTY NUT NUTS. It's heat in body. It's stomach that's turning. It often turns onto thoughts like, "he's such a jerk/he's so inconsiderate/he doesn't care about me or my feelings," and eventually towards an explosive conversation.

It's something so small but it touches something so big.

We've all been confused, at some point in our lives, about the bigness of someone's reactions, ours or somebody else's.

And you say to your lover/friend/kid, "It's no big deal, you're OVERREACTING, it's not that bad."

And then someone says this to you and you feel furious for days.

(And you spend those days trying to justify why it is a huge deal, building the story to be as big as the pissed off that you feel.)

Some classic examples of where this happens:

  • someone's 15 minutes late

  • someone gets the bigger piece of cake

  • your best friend cancels a plan

  • you get cut off in traffic

  • someone speaks in a meeting

  • a fork is on the counter

In these moments all the plates in you rattle!

It can feel excruciating. It feels really charged. You want to leave, or fight, or shut down.

So, here's how I break it down...

Our frontal lobe, the rational and logical part of our brain, is the part that says to ourselves or others, "no big deal."

And it's right.

Then there's our brainstem, the part of our brain that's emotional and POWERFUL. It says, "this is a big frickin' deal."

And it's also right.

They're both right.

Enter...the dirty plate metaphor.

So, let's take the example of getting the smaller piece of cake.

In theory, as an adult, this is in the NBD category.

However, if you indulge me for a moment in imagining that each person's body is a sink that has a different stack of dirty plates in it.

Sexy, right?

These dirty plates are particular. Each person carries a stack with a distinct odour, spice combo, pattern, colour etc.

Let's imagine that this person that gets the smaller piece of cake was one of 9 children and the parents were pretty much done giving out any kind of cake by the time he came along.

Or let's imagine he was a twin with a strong allegiance to fairness.

Or let's imagine he grew up in a family where his younger sibling was favoured by his step parent.

The amount of plates piled up in him with implicit (unspoken) messages like, "there's not enough for you," "your needs can't be met," "things must be fair" or "you're not important," are significant.

It's the pile of dishes he completely avoids because it's big and feels normal.

These plates continue to pile up in his body/nervous system/brainstem and he might gravitate to situations and pick out stories, and tell stories in his life that support the plates and the intensity of emotion he feels because of them. These stories that seemingly prove, "my needs can't be met."

And then the cake is cut and another plate is stacked on the pile and he feels that pang or that churning of the stomach. ALL THE PLATES RATTLE.

It was just one plate and it's ALL THE PLATES.

The feeling is charged, familiar, and old.



He got the smaller piece of cake, yes, but this does not mean that his "needs can't be met."

He gets the smaller piece of cake, yes, but it does not mean the person serving the cake doesn't care.

He gets the smaller piece of cake, yes, but it does not mean that life is against him.

The feeling I get when my boyfriend doesn't text back is a real thing, yes, however, it does not mean, as it's rattling all the plates in me, that "I am too much and he's leaving."

Being dismissed by your friend and the BIG feelings are real, but it doesn't mean that "you don't matter."

So what do you do about this?

Let's consider the following:

  • All emotions are real. period. They are happening. They are not to be argued with. Leave the emotion and the intensity of the emotion alone. Or better yet, say to yourself or the other person, genuinely, "I'm sorry you're feeling so ______."

  • Sensation rather than story. Acknowledge the feeling but stay out of the story. Get to the bottom of what someone's feeling, and where that's coming from in their life, but stay out of the details of the current story if you can.

  • Wait to discuss logistics and story till the wave passes and your prefrontal cortex comes back on line. Physiologically it's impossible to hear or see the other person when you're in fight/flight. Consider where that sensation is in your body. Slow down the story in your head and the meaning you're creating about your present situation. Be super duper kind to the feeling/sensation (your younger self). Spend your energy focusing on that. Lean away from the meaning you want to make and the story you want to cling to. Do not attempt to argue, cajole, reason, or battle with it. Pretend you're comforting a baby. Hold it, be with it, speak softly to it...

  • Ask, "Is this charged, old, familiar, consuming?" If so, it's probably been around since the first 0-7 years of your life. I remind myself that I'm "time-travelling" and what I'm feeling is from a younger place in me. I try to consider what the young part of me is needing or afraid of. I remind myself that my adult self has resources my younger self didn't have and is not going to die.

  • Don't throw all your plates at the person or situation in front of you. Consider that many of the things rattling in you were there long before this BIG FEELING moment. You might say to the person you're with "This isn't about you, all my plates are rattling right now." If you have the space and time you might share why this particular thing is particular charged for you.

  • Appreciate the anger that comes with cleaning dirty dishes that aren't yours and that you didn't leave in the sink (they were put there when you were young). ARg...growl...seriously. So. much. anger. Figure out why the anger might make sense from the early days of your life, when you were actually a victim of your circumstances, rather than throwing it at the current people around you.

  • Don't text or email when "charged." Wait... I know, it's soooo tempting.

  • Soothe yourself and then address the one or two plates that have just been stacked on top of the pile.

  • Find a way to start gently washing and putting away the rest of the plates (I have some ideas. Some of them are in this list. Some of them may need the support of a therapist or very safe person. I do think it's person to person work and not necessarily possible in an "online course" or even a cerebral/frontal lobe counselling session.)

So, yes and yes, and neither the logical part nor the brainstem need to be shamed.

They're both right. We are over reacting and it is perfectly reason-able.

The question becomes, how do we invite our adult self to look after our child self so we're just dealing with the top 1 or 2 plates.

(And if you're asking those around to help, begin to discern which level of plate you're working with, the dried-on-old-old-stuff, or the relatively-new-and-no-need-to-soak.)



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