How to Deal with Emotionally Volatile People:
“He can be so charming and then so defiant.”

"Out of the Rough" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Out of the Rough” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

People who swing from one extreme to the other, from being pleasant and charming one moment to being angry and defiant the next often lack emotional resilience and autonomy. They tend to fuse emotionally both positively and negatively to others, behaving wonderfully when they feel good, and blaming everyone around them when things are not going their way. Their sense of self reacts to external circumstances, and their behavior fluctuates according to their unstable sense of self.

There can be many reasons for emotional volatility, including genetic influences such as bipolar disorder, parental indulgence that contributes to a lack of impulse control, dietary imbalance, narcissism, or brain trauma from injury or drug use. Regardless of the contributing factors, when we understand how we might affect, trigger, or play into the relationship dynamic with a volatile person, we can learn how to stop having to suffer at the whims of the temperamental people in our lives.

Emotional Fusion

Swings in mood are exacerbated by emotional fusion. The emotional merging together of two people often results in excessive attachment, manipulation, and reactivity. When two people are emotionally fused, there is insufficient emotional separation for either person to maintain a grounded and empowered sense of self. As a result, emotionally-volatile people tend to swing from being hyper-accommodating to recalcitrant. Autonomy and intimacy get replaced by a sense of isolation and oppression.

Problems with Emotional Fusion

1. Repression and Anger

The reason volatile people swing from good to bad moods is that the only way they know how to be “good” is to be completely accommodating of other people’s needs and desires. The problem with being overly accommodating is that you repress your own conflicting needs, feelings and thoughts.

Such repressed feelings can manifest themselves in depression, sickness or addiction, or they erupt unexpectedly in anger or self-sabotaging behavior. The inability to calmly and firmly withstand the pressure to acquiesce to another person or tolerate another person’s disagreement or disapproval often leads to anger, belligerence and destructive behavior.

2. Weak Sense of Identity

Excessive emotional fusion creates an increasing dependence on others, which will often result in self-loathing. From infancy onward, human beings possess the instinctive drive to become capable and autonomous. It is not egotistic for a child to say, “Look at me! I can throw the ball, paint a picture, tie my shoes.…” It feels good to be able to do something on your own.

Yet it can be tempting to allow others to do things for you or tell you what to do. Such dependence seems to make life easier, but also creates deep-seated resentment. Thus, emotional fusion leads to cycles of attack and capitulation, which cause bitterness and a diminished sense of self. The underlying problem is that neither person can maintain his or her sense of identity in the presence of the other.

3. Subject to Peer Pressure

When you accommodate others in order to get validation, you become subject to peer pressure, that is, you behave in order to gain the immediate approval of your peers. This can easily lead to engaging in behavior that is harmful to yourself or others.

4. Diminishing Boundaries — Fusion

With increased fusion, boundaries between people dissolve, and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. Undifferentiated people, that is, people who tend to fuse emotionally to others, mistakenly assume that they are responsible for another person’s wellbeing. The expectation that they must “make somebody happy” ironically increases pressure, anxiety, and disappointment for both parties. It does not generate happiness.

We can only placate someone temporarily. While we can be kind and considerate, we cannot ultimately provide wellbeing to another person without diminishing that person’s independence and exhausting ourselves in the process.

Altering your role in a fused relationship

1. Disengage: Don’t Manipulate

Control your own behavior but don’t try to control the other person’s behavior. It takes two to become emotionally fused. Stay calm even if the other person throws a temper tantrum, tries to manipulate you, or withdraws suddenly. Those strong emotional reactions only have power if you give them power.

You may have to pull back, limit the relationship, or discontinue the offerings you provide, but don’t do so in a dramatic way. Actions taken without emotional heat are much more effective than histrionics in the form of pleading, lecturing, or giving the cold shoulder.

It is imperative to stop participating in the drama of trying to control, manipulate, or unduly accommodate the other person. If you become emotionally separate, that is, if you remain caring without becoming overly reactive or tied into the other person’s emotional state, the other person will lose the intense desire to provoke an emotional reaction from you. There will be less of an urgent desire to either please you or to rebel against you. In other words, their reactivity — whether smoldering hatred or sweet manipulation — diminishes when there is no dramatic emotional effect, including cold indifference.

Analogy

Think of a toddler’s temper tantrum. When parents bribe, plead, or make threats, they actually encourage more tantrums. The toddler, who is just starting to develop a sense of self, thinks “Wow, this is cool. Look at the commotion I am causing! I have power!” Moreover, the parents’ anxiety expressed by their frantic attempts to calm the child shows the child that the world is not so safe. Why else would the parents be acting so anxiously?

For those who lack self-empowerment, such as a toddler or a dependent adult, having power over others provides a substitution for the feeling of power over one’s own life. But it is a poor substitution.

2. Stop Tip-toeing Around: Don’t be Compliant

Resist the temptation to become compliant in order to modify the other person’s mood and wellbeing. State your requests or potential consequences in a matter-of-fact way. We want to be considerate of others in our interactions. However, we do not want to compromise our own lives by endowing emotionally-volatile people with too much power over our own wellbeing.

By not allowing other people’s anxiety to infect us, we remain more emotionally separate and objective. Our disappointment in others diminishes as we accept and honor our individual selves. Even if only one person becomes less reactive, the relationship will improve. Moreover, it makes it easier for the other to eventually own, enjoy, and be responsible for his or her own decisions, moods, and conduct. It will ultimately give the other person the opportunity to develop a substantial sense of self and empowerment.

Often people get sucked into their child or spouse’s power trip because they feel guilty for not having been a “perfect” parent or spouse — as though there were such a thing. This is a mistake. Trying to make up for past errors and omissions by submitting to your child or partner’s emotional manipulation hurts everyone involved. On the other hand, being caring yet emotionally separate allows people the freedom to take responsibility for their own lives.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

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