I have found in the Free Dictionary 1 these definitions:

  • Too complicated to be understood by one or someone else.

  • Bypassing one's or someone else's authority.

  • Lingering in one's mind as a source of concern or worry.

But it (seems to me) doesn't fit with the rest of the phrase below:

He said he loved me but this was over his head.

So: 1 Could you please tell me what the meaning of " be over one's head" here is?

2 What does "this" refer to?

The fuller text is: (It was extended after some comments made it essential!)

When I arrived at the peak, Mother was making the Thanksgiving meal. The large oak table was covered with jars of tincture and vials of essential oil, which I cleared away. Charles was coming for dinner. Shawn was in a mood. He sat on a bench at the table, watching me gather the bottles and hide them. I’d washed Mother’s china, which had never been used, and I began laying it out, eyeing the distance between each plate and knife.

Shawn resented my making a fuss. “It’s just Charles,” he said. “His standards aren’t that high. He’s with you, after all.”

I fetched glasses. When I put one in front of him, Shawn jabbed a finger into my ribs, digging hard. “Don’t touch me!” I shrieked. Then the room turned upside down. My feet were knocked out from under me and I was swept into the living room, just out of Mother’s sight.Shawn turned me onto my back and sat on my stomach, pinning my arms at my sides with his knees. The shock of his weight forced the breath from my chest. He pressed his forearm into my windpipe. I sputtered, trying to gulp enough air to shout, but the airway was blocked.

[...] Charles arrived early—Dad hadn’t even come in from the junkyard yet— and sat at the table across from Shawn, who glared at him, never blinking.

[...] I passed Shawn carrying a large china plate of dinner rolls, and he stabbed my gut so hard it knocked the wind out of me. I dropped the plate. It shattered.

“Why did you do that?” I shouted.

It happened so quickly, I don’t know how he got me to the floor, but again I was on my back and he was on top of me. He demanded that I apologize for breaking the plate. I whispered the apology, quietly, so Charles wouldn’t hear, but this enraged Shawn. He grabbed a fistful of my hair, again near the scalp, for leverage, and yanked me upright, then dragged me toward the bathroom. The movement was so abrupt, Charles had no time to react. The last thing I saw as my head hurled down the hall was Charles leaping to his feet, eyes wide, face pale.

[...] The next thing I remember, Charles was lifting me and I was laughing—a shrill, demented howl. I thought if I could just laugh loudly enough, the situation might still be saved, that Charles might yet be convinced it was all a joke. Tears streamed from my eyes—my big toe was broken—but I kept cackling. Shawn stood in the doorway looking awkward.

“Are you okay?” Charles kept saying.

“Of course I am! Shawn is so, so, so—funny.” My voice strangled on the last word as I put weight on my foot and a wave of pain swept through me. Charles tried to carry me but I pushed him off and walked on the break, grinding my teeth to stop myself from crying out, while I slapped playfully at my brother.Charles didn’t stay for supper. He fled to his jeep and I didn’t hear from him for several hours, then he called and asked me to meet him at the church. He wouldn’t come to Buck’s Peak. We sat in his jeep in the dark, empty parking lot. He was crying.

“You didn’t see what you thought you saw,” I said.

If someone had asked me, I’d have said Charles was the most important thing in the world to me. But he wasn’t. And I would prove it to him. What was important to me wasn’t love or friendship, but my ability to lie convincingly to myself: to believe I was strong. I could never forgive Charles for knowing I wasn’t.

I became erratic, demanding, hostile. I devised a bizarre and everevolving rubric by which I measured his love for me, and when he failed to meet it, I became paranoid. I surrendered to rages, venting all my savage anger, every fearful resentment I’d ever felt toward Dad or Shawn, at him, this bewildered bystander who’d only ever helped me. When we argued, I screamed that I never wanted to see him again, and I screamed it so many times that one night, when I called to change my mind, like I always did, he wouldn’t let me.

We met one final time, in a field off the highway. Buck’s Peak loomed over us. He said he loved me but this was over his head. He couldn’t save me. Only I could. I had no idea what he was talking about.

  • 1
    You really need to provide more context. This refers to the situation described in the previous paragraph, and more generally to the previous several pages. The situation is too complicated and daunting for Charles to be able to help the narrator. May 30, 2018 at 16:39
  • 2
    the phrase is "over one's head" I fixed the question. It's a possessive. May 30, 2018 at 16:42
  • StoneyB I added some more context.
    – Peace
    May 30, 2018 at 16:52
  • 2
    Your second definition "Bypassing one's or someone else's authority" is not the meaning of the question title "be over one's head", but "go over someone's head". May 30, 2018 at 18:18

4 Answers 4


I think that the right choice is the first

Too complicated to be understood by one or someone else.

There is a lack of context in your excerpt. I didn't know exactly what is this but it's not present in the excerpt. It may be all the problems that she have with her dad, her brother, the metaphorical needles, her metaphorical time travels - I'm kidding in this last point - ... He couldn't save her from all those problems. I have no idea what she is talking about exactly. Only someone who has read the book could help you.

I've read more after your edit and I maintain my opinion. She is not describing an specific problem with this. The whole situation with her family and with her entire life seems too complicated. Charles can't understand that he can't not help her, he don't get the whole picture.

  • I added some more text.
    – Peace
    May 30, 2018 at 16:51
  • 1
    @Peace I've added some text too
    – RubioRic
    May 30, 2018 at 18:51

As already indicated, it means "it is too complex for me [one] to understand"
It always takes the possessive - my, his etc.

It has some modern idiomatic versions too...

These are all usually used as a metaphor, not literally

Business/corporate version

It's above my pay grade

This ostensibly indicates that someone of greater rank would need to answer, but it is frequently used as a euphemism for 'I don't understand. This is too technical for me.'

Colloquial/jocular version

It didn't even part my hair

It is so far above my head that it went past me without even making enough draught/wind to move my hair.

There's one not directly related but similar -

Out of my depth

which directly relates to swimming in water too deep to put your feet on the bottom, if you stop swimming you may drown. Metaphorically it is to be unable to cope with a situation, through fear or inexperience.

As noted in comments -
Your linked definition is not for a single metaphor type, the three are distinctly different & not really connected other than they contain some of the same words.

To go over someone's head is to go directly to their boss instead of them.
For something to hang over one's head is to have a nagging worry.
They are not connected to your actual question at all.


He said he loved me but this was over his head.

In the above sentence, this, refers to love. The speaker does not take the persons claim of love seriously because they believe the concept of love is too complicated to be understood by the person claiming to be in love.

Additionally, the person in your excerpt has a very complicated, almost irrational, view of love. The character most likely will never believe that anyone can understand love, or love them in return.

  • @WeatherVane - It looks like there is a lot going on in this excerpt, but I would say that she is perplexed that he can't understand how she see's him, or why he persists in pursuing her when it's obvious to her she is her only true salvation.
    – am21
    May 30, 2018 at 18:32

I think the original text was wrongly written .. "We met one final time, in a field off the highway. Buck’s Peak loomed over us. He said he loved me but this was over his head. He couldn’t save me. Only I could. I had no idea what he was talking about."

The most common use of the phrase "she was in over her head" means that the subject was in a situation that she was either not prepared for (inexperienced) or had insufficient authorization to deal with.

I think the intention might have been to say that the man's statement about loving her went over her head .. meaning that she did not comprehend how that could be possible (given his treatment of her?) or that she did not grasp how bad the situation was for her.

I base this on the final line "I had no idea what he was talking about.", which I take to mean that what the man was telling her was incomprehensible, so perhaps the line should have been

... "this was over MY head"

the text is quite badly written so the authors actual intention has been successfully concealed from us all.

  • 1
    His ability to deal with her being abused is what he couldn't cope with. May 30, 2018 at 17:49

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