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How To Learn To Respond — Not React. Making the Unconscious, Conscious.

I got in a snit yesterday.

You could call it a hissy fit.

Whatever you call it, it wasn’t pretty. I was totally over-reacting to what was going on.  I knew what I was saying and doing didn’t make a bit of sense, but I was sticking to my guns. I fueled the fire of illogical thoughts with heavy sighs and a dramatic stomping off into another room. I wanted to make sure my husband knew how pissed off I was — as if that was unclear.

Luckily he knew that it would take me a few minutes, but that I’d come around and apologize.

So, what’s happening when you completely over-react (or under-react) to something? What happens when your rational, healthy self – the part of you that has the capability of responding non-defensively but sincerely– is automatically overruled and your actions are governed instead by fear, defensiveness, blaming, and blowing things out of proportion? Or, quite the opposite, (and what a lot of perfectionistic people do who need to please others…) you under-react — as you automatically clamp down whatever potentially authentic response you have and replace it with steely over-control.

Often, it’s because something is unconsciously triggered that has nothing to do with the actual present moment but is linked to painful experiences from the past.

Instead of responding – you react.

An example of unconscious over-reaction…

Here’s a more precise example, which once again, revolves around getting angry with my husband.

Poor guy.

Years ago, our toddler son, Rob, was still sleeping one early Saturday morning.  My husband, a golfer, hadn’t been playing at all since Rob was born. It was a gorgeous day, and I heard him say, “I’m thinking about going out and playing a round, if that’s okay with you.”

I became immediately furious and spouted off something about him being selfish.

He was as surprised as I was at my venom, and there was an awkward silence between us.

Then all of a sudden a childhood memory slammed its way into my brain. When I was a young girl, my dad would leave for the golf course on Saturday mornings, and be gone most of the day. My mother was far from happy about it, and would confide in me — way too much and way too often.

I felt emotionally trapped.

That’s the exact feeling that came up for me that beautiful morning. I once again felt trapped. But it didn’t fit the conversation that was going on in my kitchen with my husband. It wasn’t a rational response. It was an old rage that I’d never realized was as fierce as it was. It was my unconscious mind reacting — not my conscious mind responding.

I, again, apologized — and knew that I wanted to try and understand other places or times in my life where that anger might emerge — and not fit the reality of the situation. With time, I realized how any feeling of being trapped could lead me down a devastating rabbit hole. I began watching for it, trying to catch it. I got much better at realizing when it occurred, and not allowing it to take me over the edge.

An example of unconscious under-reaction…

Unconscious under-reactions can be a bit harder to detect, because they don’t cause a scene or make a fuss. But they can be as problematic as their emotional first cousin.

One example that jumps to mind is when boundaries are violated and there’s no reaction. For example, if your adult helicopter mother, who’s been running your life for years, tells you what you’re doing wrong in your marriage — without you asking — and your only response is to feel shame that you have the problem. Or, a very different situation — when your fragile, needy mother or father texts you one more  time about one more problem they can’t resolve and you automatically put down what you’re doing and do it for them. In both situations, you’re not aware of the boundary being crossed. You don’t get angry — you may not even be aware of the manipulation.

Others may point it out to you and you may even deny it at first. But then, you begin to wonder, “Well, what would I say to a friend to whom this was happening? I’d say, ‘Tell your mom to keep her opinion to herself — she needs to support you!” Or, “Give the responsibility back to your parents when they don’t do anything for themselves. You can be loyal and caring without doing everything for them.”

You might realize then, and only then, the kind of under-reaction you’re having, and do the work of practicing and watching for when it occurs again.

Call it insight. Call it getting more in control of your reactions and emotions. Call it staying in the present. Call is — as Freud would say — making the unconscious, conscious.

It can help you immensely to respond — and not be trapped by automatic behavior, thought and emotion.


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Please confidentially email me at [email protected] if you experience or have questions about Perfectly Hidden Depression. Or you can read more of my posts here on Psych Central or on my own website.

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You can hear more about PHD and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.






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How To Learn To Respond — Not React. Making the Unconscious, Conscious.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist who's practiced in Fayetteville, Arkansas for twenty-five years. Her passion for researching Perfectly Hidden Depression began in 2014 and she's currently writing a book to be published next year by New Harbinger. Her work has been featured on Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, The Mighty and The Good Men Project, among others. She's the author of "Marriage Is Not For Chickens", a blogger (Https:// and podcaster (SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford). She welcomes your questions and comments -- [email protected]

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APA Reference
Rutherford, D. (2018). How To Learn To Respond — Not React. Making the Unconscious, Conscious.. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jul 2018
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