Do you ever exaggerate? Do you tend to overshare? Do you catch yourself overreacting? Surely you don’t, but surely your girlfriend carries on excessively about her uneventful (to you) five-minute conversation with her ‘distant’ friend; surely your teenager explodes in self-defense at the gentlest encouragement to call on his way home next time; or your father exaggerates the amount of time he’s put into planning a weekend trip. To us, the blameless few, this kind of excessive behavior is too much for anyone to handle. There is, of course, the standard of objective truth, and those who swing beyond its parameters need to get back, need to find balance, center, even keel. When the ones we know and love are “too much” for us, we generally think to ourselves, “Pete has really got to get some perspective” or some variant. We then follow that thought, depending on how close we are to the person in question, by vocalizing it with contingent degrees of judgment, to them or to others.
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wants to tell you that often your reaction is as excessive as the excessive act itself. He wouldn’t argue with you that your spouse, your teenager, your father is “too much” for you, but he would say that you may have stopped short of the grander truth, that, in fact, you are “too much” for you. That these frightening-aggravating-depressing moments of excess are actually moments of human reality–the reality of human excess, human “too-muchness”, if you will–instead of being moments of straying from the usual “balance” or “manageability” or “okay-ness”. For Phillips, as he says in his “Five Short Talks on Excess”, from his book On Balance, “too much” is normative. And it explains a lot:
I want to suggest that we are simply too much for ourselves, but that this too-muchness is telling us something important. I want to begin with a simple proposition, and see where it takes us. My proposition is that it is impossible to overreact. That when we call our reactions overreactions what we mean is just that they are stronger than we would like them to be. In other words, we sometimes call ourselves and other people excessive as a way of invalidating or tempering the truths we tell ourselves or that other people tell us. It is impossible to overreact.
…We are too much for ourselves–in our hungers and our desires, in our griefs and our commitments, in our loves and our hates–because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. The whole idea of ourselves as excessive exposes how determined we are to have the wrong picture of what we are like, of how fanatically ignorant we are about ourselves. We describe people as excessively violent not when they are being more violent than they really are, or should be, but because they are being more violent than we want them to be. They are showing us what people are capable of: we may want to think of people who torture others, people who are committed to ethnic cleansing, people who kill themselves and others for their beliefs, are the exceptions that prove the rule; but actually they reveal to us what certain people in certain situations, certain predicaments, want to do. Excessive behavior tells us more than we want to hear about who we are, about what we want to say to each other, and what we might be capable of.
…Adolescents are too much for their parents, and too much for themselves. Parents are just people who have spent more time being too much for themselves. Because adults, of course, are not less excessive in their behavior than adolescents. Concentration camps were not run by adolescents; adolescents are not mostly alcoholics or millionaires, because they haven’t had the time. Excessive behavior, in other words, is not so much something we grow out of as something we grow into.
…Perhaps ‘excess’ is a word we use to reassure ourselves that we can be something other than excessive. If we start off by being, at least some of the time, too much for other people, and become, in adolescence, definitively too much for people, so much so that we have to leave them, and then become adults who are unavoidably too much for ourselves, what is to be done? Well, one thing that can be done is to find someone we are not too much for, and this, when it isn’t an institution or a leader, sometimes has to be a god.