Dear Dr. Dombeck, I have actually a quite strange problem. I read a lot about children and teenagers being very emotional and throwing tantrums, but I am 21 years old and I do this too. Sometimes I fly off the handle or cry for no reason. I’ve tried very hard to control this anger many different ways and I’ve been fairly successful, and as a result, my personal relationships have thrived. The new problem that arose from this, which is quite odd, was that I’m so happy. I cry a lot out of happiness and i have a constant fear I’m going to lose the people in my life that I finally love and get along with! For example, my boyfriend and I are getting along so well, he moved in, and we’re talking about getting married. Things are so great, I’m so happy that it makes me cry when I think about it. why is this? how can I handle this? it feels so stupid to be so upset when I’m so happy! Thanks
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Though all people have emotions, there is a very wide range of how people experience and express those emotions. For instance, people vary widely in terms of how emotional they are, and also in terms of how emotionally expressive they are. These two things are not the same. It is very possible to be a highly emotional person, but to be very careful about sharing that emotionality with others. It is also possible to be a positively dramatic person in terms of how willing to make public displays of emotion someone is, but to not really feel the feelings on display very deeply. People also vary in terms of how quickly they come to be angry, with some people having a quick temper that flares abruptly and just as quickly dies back down, and others being slower to anger, but once aroused, not easily able to calm themselves. There are many other dimensions to emotionality as well. I mention this to start out because it seems that you are viewing yourself as having a problem, when it is fully possible that your personal emotional style is just another variety of normal. There are clinical problems that turn on people’s over-emotionality, for sure, but I don’t think it is necessarily the case, based on what you’ve shared that you have one of them.
Whether or not your problems are part of a disorder have to do to a large extent to how disabling or alienating or uncomfortable they are. If you find yourself disabled (unable to sustain friendships, unable to hold a job, etc.) by your emotionality, it could be a clinical problem. If you are able mostly to keep your emotionality from getting the better of you, it is less likely that you have a clinical problem. Because you are able to more or less keep your temper and emotionality in check, it seems less likely to me that you have a clinical problem.
It isn’t possible exactly to say what variety of clinical emotional problem you might have if you did have one, but we can take a paragraph to outline what some of the different candidates are. The major candidates for over-emotionality are the mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder), the anxiety disorders, and some of the personality disorders (such as histrionic or borderline personality disorders). There are also a few more minor players to consider, including something called Intermittent Explosive Disorder which presents as a severe anger problem. There is always the possibility that drug use could be making you excessively emotional as well.
If I had to pick one of these disorders for you to ponder, it would be Borderline Personality Disorder, and for this reason: You’ve described a pattern where you get angry at people and put them down, but also become very frightened about the possibility of those people abandoning you. Abandonment fears are one of the prominent features of borderline personality disorder. Another common presentation associated with borderline personality disorder is something called "lability of affect" which is a fancy phrase that means that people’s moods change rapidly from state to state. It is thought that this happens because people who have borderline personality have difficulty reconciling the good and bad parts of different people they interact with so as to be able to feel comfortable with them having both good and bad attributes at once. Because they haven’t been able to put their emotional thoughts together in an integrated fashion, their mood may switch from positive to negative as they recall just a single negative memory about a person they are involved with. Your use of phrases like "fly off the handle" suggests that you may be labile in terms of your emotional expression. It is clear that you feel your emotions deeply when you feel them and are expressive of those emotions.
Let’s step back from consideration of clinical problems and just talk about why one person might be more emotional than another. For one thing, people are born expressing differences in their capacity for emotional stability. A temperament trait known as Neuroticism is well studied, and runs in families in a genetic fashion. People who have it tend to be more emotional and more likely to become anxious or depressed than people who don’t have it. Neuroticism is a scientific term, but not one that regular people use. Regular people talk instead about differences in terms of people’s sensitivity, which is a similar but not quite the same concept.
People’s emotionality is also affected by the experiences they endure. People who have been abused or harmed in some significant fashion have experience with pain and are more likely to get emotional when reacting to situations which remind them of past pain than are people who have never been abused.
Having covered this background, I can say that my first impression is that you are a sensitive (neurotic) young woman, who has possibly had to endure some hurtful life experiences that have sensitized you further to the possibilities of emotional pain and loss. All of this leaves you with a sort of thin skin, and a tendency to feel easily wounded and to keep one eye on the negative possibilities inherent in situations even as you struggle to appreciate the positives. This doesn’t make you weird in the slightest; it just makes you human. Relationships are fragile; more so than people appreciate often times. They can come apart, and that is a very painful prospect to imagine. Most people don’t allow themselves to dwell on that "morbid" possibility, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. That you find yourself crying means you are worried, is all. Don’t beat yourself up for such crying as this feeling is perfectly natural. Instead, simply work on not judging yourself; on accepting your emotionality as a part of who you are as a person.
If you wanted to do some therapy for this "problem" that wouldn’t hurt. There are two things I think might be helpful to consider. The first is simply being able to talk about your concerns. You probably don’t have a good ability to know what is normal emotionality and what isn’t, and the best way to find out where you stand is to talk about what you are going through with others who can give you feedback. Obviously, you want to pick confidants with some care so that they are trustworthy and sincere people who won’t misuse your trust.
The second thing is something called self-soothing. People like yourself tend to "beat yourself up", and call yourself names like "stupid", when really there is nothing stupid about your feelings (You may feel vulnerable and that may be uncomfortable, but it isn’t stupid). A therapist can help you work on learning how to calm yourself down when you are feeling upset and to judge yourself less negatively and with a more self-accepting attitude. Self-soothing skills are very similar to the Stress Reduction and Management skills that are described in this topic center which I encourage you to read.
I hope this is helpful to you.