when is it and when is it not wrong-headed to talk of emotional over-reaction?

Here's a question raised by a friend the other day. There are times when it could be right to say to a partner: 'you are emotionally over-reacting'. But there are times when to say that would be just plain inappropriate. How can we tell what we have to do with in a given instance?

We can probably give examples of both, although the whole business of sorting them out will inevitably be rather tricky. It will I think be tricky in ways that speak not only to (epistemic) difficulties in the accuracy of our determinations, but also to (ontological) difficulties of the following sort. There are reactive dispositions we have (to judge this or that way in this or that circumstance) that can themselves be evaluated by reference to further standards, but there are also reactive dispositions that themselves contribute to the normative foundations of the discourse and so are not intelligibly said to be apt or in-apt. The ontological difficulty is caused by the fact that these latter (call them 'constitutive') reactive dispositions, dispositions of a sort that also constitute our character, themselves differ between us.

Nevertheless we do well to forestall sliding into complete scepticism or relativism here. After all our everyday moral, aesthetic and psychological discourses are often run through with such ontological indeterminacies; character is a non-eliminable source of differently shaped constitutive dispositions. Yet the wiggle room doesn't entirely obviate the discourses (which is why I called it wiggle room), and there's no reason why they should be held accountable to standards only appropriate to the more scrutable (and typically impersonal) discourses of the sort found in, say, the sciences. After all, as I said at the beginning, I think most of us, especially before we get going with any wrong-headed theorising, when we are just, in an aptly unreflective way, simply residing within our ethical and emotional sensibilities and fathoming others from within them, would be more than happy with the idea that there are some judgements of emotional over-reaction which are apt and others which are not simply wrong but themselves ethically and conceptually out of place.

In fact we might suspect someone who flat-out refused the validity of any judgement of emotional over-reaction, or for that matter who insisted on its always being appropriate to make such determinations, as having significant narcissistic disturbance. To envisage this it might (yikes!) help to call on gendered stereotypes pushed to the max. With these stereotypes the ultra man would be the one to insist on the always-appropriateness of judgements of over-reaction; the ultra woman would be the one to insist on their always-inappropriateness. Someone who always tried to force the issue of their inexorable entitlement to judge, or their inexorable entitlement to reside immune from judgement, would be a very difficult friend or partner to handle. Frustration with such individuals would be inevitable; pity may well also be an appropriately charitable response.

When I started thinking about this question I was looking for a criterion to help me decide which case I had to do with. However now I suspect this is simply inappropriate. Instead I think what we might need to do is to borrow a method of Wittgenstein's, and to provide examples from neighbouring discourses (LW would call them: other 'language games') with which we find ourselves less puzzled, so that we can then relax back down into the sui generis determinations made within the moral discourse under investigation here. (Assuming all goes well. The risk of course is that the donor discourse will not cure, but will itself become infected by, the anxieties attending the discourse with which we are having reflective trouble.)

So let's consider those myriad cases in which we live and let live in our differences. One person is not moved by Beethoven but only by Bach; another is the other way around; we don't tend to give either a hard time about it. They are temperamentally different. And we willingly make space for temperamental differences within the scope of what counts as humanity. Jeff is a bit introverted, Caroline rather extroverted. That is fine, considered just by themselves these are equally respectable ways of being human. Mark is more placid, Harriet easily enthused. Katherine is more sensitive, Engelbert fairly thick skinned. Great! Bring it on! Each can bring something to the table. And with literature too we value being able to enter into transient imaginary identifications with characters who as it were travel different 'routes of interest', whose 'whirl of organism' (Stanley Cavell's lovely phrase) is somewhat different from our own; this is simply enriching. So at such junctures we relaxedly and fairly automatically take it as read that judgement would be out of place

Or consider the following example, again from a conceptual cousin of the discourse in question. So here are Jeff and Caroline having an argument at home. It's a Saturday morning and Jeff wants to spend some extra time at work going over his grant application; Caroline feels this as him not valuing time with her. It goes back and forth for a bit, but then Jeff, in a quiet and kind and thoughtful tone, says 'I hear you, that you wanted us to spend this morning together. And I honestly would love that too. But this is a one-off, it really is. And I think that, when you dismiss my desire to go to work this morning, you are really overlooking the value to me of my work and of my getting this application in. I want to gently remind you: this really matters to me, and right now I need your support in it.' In a straightforward, honest, un-manipulative manner Jeff reminds Caroline of his values, and of the fact that, if her love for him truly is a love for him, as opposed to a wish for him to meet her needs, she will not just begrudgingly take his wishes into account, but will be fully behind their being followed through. (In making this kind of point I think I'm probably plagiarising the super-thoughtful work of Joel Backström - The Fear of Openness.) Of course we can also imagine the opposite - that we have to do with Jeff being selfish, and Caroline's frustration being a matter of trying to remind him of the superordinate value of their relationship - I come back to this at the end.

I want en passant to say something here about the developmental significance of the acknowledgement of the validity of such temperamental differences by parents of their children. It is easy to imagine psychological problems being caused by discrete trauma, but the research on the development of extreme disorders such as schizophrenia suggests that what here particularly confounds the developing individual is a total lack of recognition of their individuality - of the validity of their having interests and cares and sensibilities that are all their own - of the parents' recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of these in their child simply because they are theirs. What causes the greatest difficulties for individuation is when there is no space at all for such recognition - we call it gross 'intrusiveness'. (Of course every parent-child relationship involves some failures in parental recognition and space-provision, and important and valuable individuation is often enough precisely predicated on a child's ability to reactively take a stand against this.)

Here, I think, we are in the territory of just what it means to offer recognition to someone as the individual they are. Carl Rogers' therapy can be read as an attempt at maximal recognition of this sort - what Rogers called 'unconditional positive regard'. The question of course is whether the unconditionality is a letting-off-the-hook sort which actually, in not holding someone accountable to common standards, perhaps paradoxically constitutes a failure to offer them real recognition (since - oh it's all so Tony Blair but never mind - rights come with responsibilities!) or whether it is a matter of that not setting out of conditions which itself constitutes a willingness to meet someone as a person.

Another way to get clear about the difference between the two cases is to develop some better vocabulary for describing it. Here is one effort: The difference is between those cases in which we hold someone accountable to a standard external to them, and those cases in which that person is themselves deigned the standard. That after all is part of what it is to treat someone as a person: to show them respect, take them seriously, to offer them acknowledgement - and to do this by saying that simply in virtue of their emotional reaction being their emotional reaction is it valid. As already suggested, though, this can't (on pains of narcissistic pathology) be a universal moral get out of jail free card. But the burden of proof, as it were, in any instant, ought properly to lie with the alleger of over-reaction.

Perhaps we would do well too to explore a bit more the character of the accusation of 'over-reacting'. So far I've written as if it were a factual matter - a matter of someone getting things out of proportion. Actually, though, I suspect it most often has an accusatory force. When I say of you that you are over-reacting, then I may well be saying of you that you are over-egging the moral pudding, over-cooking the ethical goose - that you are milking the situation to your moral advantage, trying to say to me 'oh look you've been really nasty to me and now you've gone and made me upset'. The question is: when is this accusation apt and when in-apt?

At any rate, rather than settle on a criterion for deciding whether or not we have to do with bad behaviour, or with something to do with an aspect of a person's personhood which ought to be considered inalienable, I now reckon we do best to work towards together keeping the conversation about that open. (After all, we can hardly find some external position, not itself inflected by precisely the whole richness of healthy characterological diversity here under discussion, within which to formulate the criterion.) Let's keep on the table, together, that either of us may be over-reacting, but also keep open our access to what at many moments is the properness of unconditional regard.

To do that we do well to have some reflective resources on hand - like the kinds of categories and contrasts drawn up in the above. Yet by itself this will never be enough. For surely, I now want to say, we can't hope to replace what is ultimately the work of morality itself with the work of the intellect. This is the main reason why it's wrong-headed to look for a criterion to separate out the two situations (of when it is and when it isn't ok to say 'you're over-reacting') unless that criterion itself (quite correctly) presupposes the moral-evaluative capacity for judgement that is here at issue. Unless I am able to move into a moral-emotional position of acknowledging my relational failings, bearing guilt, making reparations, honest contrition, open-heartedness, stepping out of the cycles of mimetic violence (Girard), saying 'I'm sorry' not to get something to end but because one actually is sorry, asking for forgiveness, then any amount of intellectual discussion may just get put in the service of those inexorable narcissistic perversions consideration of which began this post. We also need to work on elaborating the common ground between us and developing an apt mutual tolerance - hopefully not of the sort that does this by simply projecting all the undesirable badness onto others outside the relationship - so we can avoid becoming one of those awful smug self-righteous couples with a symbiotic cosyness yet with dismal self-righteous relationships with institutions and other families. All of this is hard work, perhaps mainly because guilt is hard work. Yet it is the work of love, and what matters more than that?

Recap: I started by asking how we can distinguish between situations when it is and when it isn't wrong-headed to say to someone 'you are over-reacting'. This was articulated as a conceptual rather than an empirical question (hence as actually being interesting!), and it was situated as relating to aspects of human judgement that are replete with constitutive indeterminacy. Next I reminded us of some related situations where we happily rule out the appropriateness of critical judgement - when we are talking about aesthetic preference. Finally I suggested that rather than provide an intellectually assayable criterion for making the distinction in question we need to refer ourselves back to our moral judgement - to our conscience. That is, rather than hoping to determine a moral decision (whether someone is right or wrong to say 'you are over-reacting') by reference to a general extra-moral criterion, we instead need to recognise that the work of offering someone apt recognition is a work of love. That work involves us listening to our consciences, rather than truing up moral judgements through wielding of criteria. Consider the parallel case of Jeff and Caroline again. How can we tell whether what we have to do with, there, is Jeff being unreasonable or Caroline being unreasonable? Well perhaps if Jeff is really 'honest with himself' he starts to see that he was becoming selfish and taking Caroline for granted. Or maybe instead, when she is honest with herself, she sees that she was becoming mindless in her relationship, getting caught up in Jeff meeting her needs rather than in her supporting him to meet his. It is tempting here, or in our case of determining over-reaction, to fish around for a criterion so our hearts and consciences can be guided by our heads. My suggestion now is that perhaps this is precisely the wrong way round.


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