The Right Assumption to Make When Someone Overreacts

“The straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It’s a familiar saying, but where did it come from?

The earliest recorded use of the phrase is from Thomas Hobbs, an English professor, during a theological debate during the 17th century. Here’s the variation of how he deployed the phrase:

“The last Dictate of the Judgement, concerning the Good or Bad, that may follow on any Action, is not properly the whole Cause, but the last Part of it, and yet may be said to produce the Effect necessarily, in such Manner as the last Feather may be said to break a Horses Back, when there were so many laid on before as there want but that one to do it.”

Though he used an earlier version of the phrase, in which it’s a feather breaking a horse’s back, the meaning is the same. Today we still use the colloquialism to describe a minor action and causes a disproportionate reaction. It’s not because the thing in and of itself is so egregious; it’s because of the cumulative effects of many things. This last thing, though it’s actually pretty small, is just the final thing in a long series of frustrations.

It’s a phrase we use when we experience an overreaction to something. You’ve probably used that phrase, but even if you haven’t, you’ve experienced it. Perhaps it was with one of your children. Maybe it was with a co-worker. Maybe with your spouse. The issue presenting itself was something that might have been mildly annoying or frustrating, but it was just the final link in the chain and you blew up. Exploded. Yelled. Threatened.

The reaction was disproportionate in nature.

And it’s also probably happened to you. Maybe even recently. Someone blew up on you when, from your viewpoint, such a reaction was entirely unwarranted. So how do we typically react when that happens?

Well, we’re usually surprised at first, but surprise often gives way to anger. Maybe bitterness. Maybe a sense of victimization or unfairness at having been treated that way. And in the midst of all those things, we start to make assumptions usually about the person who has blown up on us.

We assume they are a jerk. Or at least they aren’t as nice as we thought they were. We assume they are bad tempered or impatient or reactionary as a whole. Now those things may or may not be true, but there is one other thing that we should always, as Christians, assume when we are on the rough end of an overreaction:

We should assume there is something else going on.

Rather than assuming things about another person’s character, we would do better to assume that this overreaction has less to do with us, and more to do with whatever that person is currently walking through. That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But in the heat of the moment, when we have just born the brunt of someone else’s anger, it’s much more difficult because we feel personally attacked.

But assuming something bigger must be going on? That is the posture of humility.

Pride sticks out its chest and feels entitled to better.

Pride demands an acknowledgment of mistreatment.

Pride focuses on what has been done to me rather than on another.

But humility recognizes there is always more going on than what’s on the surface.

Humility recognizes the person in front of them is still a person on the road to Christlikeness.

Humility seeks to serve and love, even at personal cost.

Humility is secure enough in God’s love that they are able to love another even when that person is difficult to love at a given moment:

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1).

Chances are you will be in an encounter, not long from now, in which you feel the twinge of wrongness. Because of Christ’s love for you, assume there is more to the story. And maybe even ask another person what that “more” actually is.

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