Some people are considered overly, or very, emotional. These terms are usually used in a derogatory way. It means they think there is something wrong with you for feeling or expressing their emotions in particular ways. Such accusations can be very isolating and can lead you to serious questions about yourself. Am I overly emotional? Is there something wrong with me? Why am I very emotional? Why can’t I be more ‘normal’?
Being overly emotional means that a person is considered by others to display emotions easily, exaggeratedly, or inappropriately. It is often associated with being considered temperamental or fragile. Sometimes the accusation of being overly emotional has more to do with their inability to cope with your emotions. But sometimes it is because you have an inability to process emotions in certain contexts. The root of addressing this, so you are able to display emotions more appropriately, is to learn about your vulnerabilities, to create a close social support network, and to develop emotional skills.
In this article, I will look at these issues in detail so you can see whether you are overly emotional and if you need to resolve your own experiences.
Am I overly emotional?
Firstly, let’s start with whether you might be considered overly emotional or not.
Here is a short list of ways that being overly emotional shows up. See if any of these relate to you:
- You have been told by more than one person that you are ‘very emotional’ or ‘overly emotional’
- You have been told by more than one person that you are intense or ‘too much’
- You have been told by more than one person that you are dramatic
- You keep finding yourself a bit ‘all over the place’
- You cry more easily than others
- You get upset more easily than others
- You get angry more easily than others
- You find your emotions ‘burst’ out
- You do not feel you have control over your emotional reactions
- You find yourself being surprised by how emotional you feel
If you can identify with a few of these then there is a good chance there is a pattern of expressing your emotions in a way that others might consider overly emotional.
What does it mean to be overly emotional?
There are two meanings to being overly emotional. The first relates to when others have the problem and the second relates to when you have the problem.
When others have the problem
Let's first look at when others have the problem. When other people struggle with emotions themselves, they can find it very difficult to deal with emotions in other people. The result is a perception that someone else’s emotional reactions are somehow inappropriate, when in actual fact they can be perfectly understandable and reasonable given the circumstances.
Some people repress or suppress their emotions (read this article for more information on that). If they cannot deal with their own emotions, displays of emotions by others can be seen as over the top. Those emotional expressions can be overwhelming and scary.
The issue here is not that expressing emotions is inappropriate, it is that the person is misperceiving the situation and placing responsibility for how they feel on to someone else to make themselves feel better. If the problem is ‘over there’ then ‘I don’t have a problem’. It is a great defence.
Sadly, many people live in a culture that is uncomfortable with emotions. While you may be able to talk to people close to you about how you feel, just think what it would be like to talk about how you feel to your colleagues or boss at work or to more distant friends and relatives. Culturally, it might be seen as odd.
In some of my research (see here), I have seen employees disclose upsetting experiences in team meetings and get upset, which seemed a very appropriate reaction to what they had experienced to me, only to be met with a wall of silence and no one moving an inch. It was like someone had just pulled the pin from a grenade and they didn’t want to move in case doing so made it blow up.
So saying someone is overly emotional can be a form of cultural conditioning to keep emotional expression to a minimum. The underlying statement goes something like this: “don’t overstep the boundary of sharing too much about how you feel, we can’t cope with that, so you stay uncomfortable over there so I can stay comfortable over here, thank you very much!”
In this situation, we can reframe a perfectly normal human experience into one that is perceived to be abnormal. The person can start to feel there is something wrong with them and that how they feel should be feared.
More sinisterly though, saying someone is overly emotional can be a form of political control. It can be a technique used by those with power and influence to discredit and undermine those who may challenge their power and influence. This can be seen in the way that some powerful men have framed women as being overly emotional or, in the extreme, histrionic.
When I have the problem
Now let’s look at when you (the person considered overly emotional) have the problem.
We can debate the origin of the problem - culture creates norms which are internalised by people so they think they have a problem when the issue is much wider - which is like the chicken and egg scenario. But we can hopefully all agree that however it starts, some people are more emotional than others, and some are emotional in a way that is not helpful to them and can damage their relationships.
So what we mean by saying you have the problem is that other people consider you to be easily upset or to express your emotions in ways that are considered by others to be exaggerated or inappropriate.
There may be some biological element. Some people are more sensitive than others and so may react in more emotional ways than others. But even if someone does have a biological predisposition to being sensitive they are still being sensitive to something! It is the social element that is significant.
We can think of being overly emotional in three ways: Trying to take money from an empty piggy bank, the straw that broke the camel’s back, and hitting a hidden iceberg.
Taking money from an empty piggy bank
We can think of people having an emotional piggy bank. When a piggy bank is full you can take money out of it but when it is empty you cannot. When we have been drained of our emotional energy we do not have the tolerance and resilience to cope with more emotional energy being taken away from us and so we can lose it, explode, get upset, because there just isn’t anything there to take out from us.
So we may be easily upset, overexaggerate, or express our emotions in inappropriate ways when we feel very tired, depressed or feel really drained.
The straw the broke the camel’s back
The idiom ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ refers to an act that seems minor or trivial that causes a large and sudden reaction because of small actions that have accumulated over time.
From an emotional point of view, this refers to someone becoming very emotional, overexpressing their emotions, or acting their emotions out in destructive ways, not because of what someone has said or done, but because what they said or did contributed to a range of other emotional experiences that culminated into a situation that they found hard to cope with.
In other words, emotions are just under the surface and it doesn’t take much for these to surface.
So a person may have broken up with someone they care deeply about, and then felt inadequate at work, and then one of their friends jokes with them later in the day about how they looked. They may have been holding it together until their friend joked with them but that just contributed to a building picture that there is something wrong with them (shame) and this is what comes out.
Hitting a hidden iceberg
The analogy of hitting a hidden iceberg comes from the story of the Titanic. The ‘unsinkable’ ship hit a hidden iceberg that exposed its unseen vulnerability and it sank.
We all have our hidden icebergs. They exist because of past experiences that have left particular vulnerabilities. We can be happily going about our daily lives when all of a sudden something happens that exposes that vulnerability and we are overwhelmed with emotion and act out of character or inappropriately.
So a person may be having a really good day at work but in a meeting someone asks them a legitimate question and because of their experiences as a child of being shamed and humiliated this question feels shaming and they take offense and respond defensively and aggressively.
What are the consequences of being overly emotional?
The main consequence of being overly emotional is that it takes you away from experiencing the present moment - the here and now - as your attention is on how you feel, how to cope with how you feel or how to cope with your own not coping!
We cannot connect with others in healthy ways or stay true to ourselves if we are overrun by our emotions.
There are a range of behaviours that we see as a result of being overly emotional:
- Pushing people away - it may be that having other people around is just too much to handle at the time and so not having them there helps you to calm down and cope with the situation
- Holding back the tears - you can feel like crying but you do not want others to know you are and so you try to hold back the tears. This is a form of suppression.
- Bursting into tears - this is a display of distress that signals you just cannot cope in that moment
- Being defensive - this is a form of action that seeks to keep a particular view of yourself in tact (for example, feeling you are being seen as immoral, you argue that you are a moral person)
- Being aggressive - this is an extreme form of defensiveness but instead of trying to keep a particular image of yourself intact you seek to attack the other person to discredit what they are saying (and hence keep your own sense of self in tact)
- Over sharing - this is a form of off loading your emotional burden by telling it to someone else. With your emotions close to the surface, it doesn’t take much for these to come out and before you know it you have said so much it might be seen as inappropriate.
- Seeking closeness to others - in attempts to manage how you feel you want to be close to others to gain a sense of acceptance or as a way to prevent being alone and the fear of what you may think or do if they are on your own.
- Seeking to appease and please - this is a more extreme version of seeking closeness with others but only in this version you are actively seeking emotional closeness by doing things you think the other person will like, often at your own expense.
- Self-harm - in extreme cases being overly emotional can lead to self-harm or suicide because the emotions are just too hard to deal with.
Of course, none of this helps in the long term. It is either taking you further away from others or taking you further away from yourself.
Taking you further away from others
A lot of the actions described above simply create emotional distance with other people.
The actions of people who are seen as overly emotional can be difficult to understand without knowing more about the context. If someone knows what your vulnerabilities are and why, what you have said and done makes a lot more sense. If they know you have had a bad day then they might not make that joke. If they know how drained you feel, it makes it easier to give the kind of support you need.
The problem is that being very emotional can make it very difficult to communicate in ways that help people understand.
Taking you further away from yourself
Some of the actions described above can lead to a sense of losing yourself.
In attempts to manage the high intensity emotions and experiences, you can end up doing things that aren’t what you would normally do or want to do. You can end up calling an ex-partner, saying things you don’t really mean, or doing things you later struggle to understand.
These actions can be inconsistent with the values and ideals of who you want to be. By moving away from them we can end up feeling more ashamed of ourselves, only to contribute to the already emotional situation.
How to stop being overly emotional
Everyone can learn how to express their emotions in healthy ways. There will always be times when the situation is too difficult for us to cope with but we can learn how to cope with more and more situations so these become less and less; it is just we are all human and so we cannot eliminate being overly emotional altogether.
It is also important to be emotional and to stay emotional. As human beings it is our emotional experience that makes life exciting, joyful, fulfilling, as well as scary. But we should not let other people who are uncomfortable with their own emotions dictate how we should feel and behave.
Having said that, we could all do with some help in learning how to cope better with the difficult times.
There are three main areas that you need to address to develop personal and social resilience to your vulnerabilities so you can express your emotions in healthy ways during those difficult times. These are (1) understanding your own vulnerabilities, (2) creating and maintaining a small group of close trusted individuals, and (3) learning the skills to deal with your emotions.
Understanding your own vulnerabilities
If you do not do the deep work of exploring your own context, history, experiences, and what meaning you have created for yourself from those, you will forever be at risk of being confused, surprised, and ashamed when your vulnerabilities are exposed.
By knowing yourself and accepting those parts of yourself that are hard to accept you lay the foundations for personal resilience and growth.
By knowing yourself, you are more able to communicate with others about how you are feeling and what you need because you know you deserve as much sensitivity as others in more difficult times. You do not need to hide or pretend things are ok, only to get upset at something that seems minor because you weren’t able to tell the truth about what was really going on at the time.
You cannot be surprised at how you feel if you really know yourself. You will not be knocked off your feet by the questions or criticisms of others because how you feel makes sense to you and you can accept it in the moment. You don’t need to be defensive, aggressive, seek to please and appease or turn on yourself as you will know who you are, know that how you feel is ok, and know that it is reasonable and understandable given your circumstances.
But understanding your own vulnerabilities takes time and effort. Therapy and counselling can help, as can personal coaching and experiential courses. But if we do not engage in some kind of personal development work then we do not develop personally.
Creating social support
Having a close group of friends (which can include your partner and family) that you are able to express yourself, no matter how crazy it may seem to people who do not know you, is essential to learning about yourself and getting through the tough times.
It is one thing to have a group of friends that you see regularly, do things with, or talk about other people, and it is another thing entirely to have a group of friends who are committed to your welfare, who take the time to really know and understand you, and are there for you when things are hard.
If you have a small group of people committed to your welfare you have a secure base from which to operate in the world. By secure base I mean a relationship(s) that you can rely on to know they will be there for you to turn to when you are upset and distressed and will receive care and understanding when you do.
Having a secure base provides greater confidence in social situations as you are less reliant on any outcome of those social interactions. You are not dependent on attention, admiration, or praise (although these are always nice) and so you are freer to be yourself, to act in ways that are consistent with the values and ideals of who you are and want to be.
It is easier to keep emotions that are close to the surface, or the emotions that come up after hitting an iceberg, or feeling overwhelmed when drained and down, when you have a safe haven you can go to express your feelings in ways you can and need to.
Developing emotion skills
Emotion skills are abilities to deal with emotions in certain circumstances. Skills can be ways of thinking, ways of acting or behaving, or ways of feeling but these are not generalised ways of thinking, acting, or feeling, they are very specific, tied to specific contexts. As Aristotle said:
Anybody can become angry - that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.
It is one thing to know why you feel the way you do and have a group of trusted friends to go to when upset but it is another to be able to process your emotions, to frame them in ways which can be helpful, to be able to express them in healthy ways in difficult circumstances. This requires a range of skills.
We are not born with emotion skills. We have to learn them. But we are not taught emotion skills, so we have to work them out ourselves, learning from others who have worked them out themselves.
I hope you can see the problem here.
We cannot become really skilled at something unless we learn from people who have dedicated their time and put a lot of effort into mastering those skills. Life is just too short to be able to learn all the skills we need through trial and error.
The answer is to engage in a process of personal development where you specifically focus on the skills you need to deal with the issues you face. It may be managing getting upset easily when criticised. It may be getting angry easily when tired. It may be shutting down when the focus is on you. We all have our own vulnerabilities and we all need to learn the skills to be able to navigate out of situations where they are exposed.
To sum up
No one is really overly emotional. It is a derogatory term used by people to say they can’t understand why someone is expressing their emotions in the way they are. But all emotions are understandable if you really know the person.
Being overly emotional really means that someone is struggling and how they are feeling and behaving is the way they are communicating that they are struggling.
But our emotional struggles can have tangible effects on our lives and relationships. Unless we learn how to deal with our struggles we risk feeling isolated and unable to cope.
We can learn how to cope and move from coping to thriving by engaging in a process of learning about ourselves, developing a supportive network, and mastering the skills we need to deal with our emotions.
All of this is achievable and transforms the way you engage with the world - you can really start to live life in the moment, engaged with the world from a place of confidence, feeling satisfied with your relationships and fulfilled in life.