Dealing with the dragon.
When someone is blowing up or melting down, we want to run and hide from all that heat. We want to immediately throw up our defenses and protect ourselves. “Shields up. Retreat.” We don’t want to listen to the lava that is spewing in our direction.
I want to say, “I can’t hear your message because of all the emotion that is shooting out at me right now.” It not only feels like an attack. Sometimes it is an attack. When emotions are high and someone can not process, own or express their emotions well, we meet their “dragon.”
Many people are so afraid of igniting the dragon in others that they do not say “no” when they need to or cave in when the disappointed person throws fire at them in response. Sometimes just the possibility of meeting a dragon is enough to keep people from what they know they need and ought to do.
I was very surprised how hard it was for me to say “no” to an elderly woman who wanted me to root through someone else’s mail box. I would never do that. It is against the law. But, she lived with me and my oh my, her displeasure was painful to endure. She would give me the silent treatment, refuse to look at me, and would harbor a grudge for weeks. But, I did refuse and suffered the results. It was so painful to be in my house with her that I went across the street and helped the neighbors. Finally I ended up in a ball on the floor crying and calling my dad. I had never met an adult who would treat others in such a way. (Yes, I have been very blessed with emotionally mature and capable adults in my life).
My dad said, “What would you do if she were a child?”
I knew immediately! I actually had the skills for handling this. I had just never thought about how to deal with an adult who would act in such a way when they didn’t get their way. I pictured her as a child without her cookie, and I was immediately set free. She no longer had an emotional hold on me.
We all have our dragons inside. We get angry when our boundaries are crossed. We spew pain when we are hurt. We might tantrum when we don’t get something we feel we need or deserve. We fear that we are not heard, cared about or loved unconditionally. We all feel the dragon roar inside.
How to tame a dragon:
Like staying off the rollercoaster, I have had to learn how to not go on a dragon ride. I can’t follow it down the hole of self-judgement and shame. I used to get so angry that I got angry. I should know/do better than this. This self-burning actually escalates and prolongs the fire–burning a hole in the self.
It is okay to have a dragon! It is understandable that we do not like our boundaries crossed. It is human to cry when we feel pain. No one likes to go without something they wanted, expected or needed. It is human to desire connection and security in our relationships. We can welcome our own dragon without fearing it.
Whether it is your own severe reaction or another’s emotional flame, the best solution I know is to stand your ground, listen and observe.
Can you empathize with yourself or others? Keep in mind that what they are saying, even what you are saying to yourself may not be the underlying issue. If you stay patient and dig–you might discover the underlying problem. Brene’ Brown calls this “going into the pit” with someone. Don’t be afraid of the deep, dark places. You have a flashlight that will show your path out.
Your dragon wants to be heard, but it may not be able to express the problem accurately. This initial reaction of yourself or others is not planned for. Emotional overwhelm can stagger anyone, but those who struggle to express emotion are even more tongue tied here. It can come out as an attack. My kids would shout, “You don’t love me!” This would hurt so deeply that I was immediately hooked emotionally. What if they really believe that? This is so unfair, everything I do is to show love. Don’t my actions speak loud enough for them to hear?
We have to avoid the hooks that threaten to pull us in emotionally and leave reason far behind. One thing that helps me is to “other” the dragon. I make it into a character. Like Pokémon, the dragons like to fight. But engaging just makes it so that no one is clear headed. In our class at school we say, “all behavior is communication.” The mystery then becomes not how to defeat the enemy, but instead, how do we decipher the message? We can’t otherize the person because we are on the same team, but we can recognize this isn’t their best self talking. This is a hurt, scared and/or angry feeling talking. I think to myself, “this is their dragon” and try not to react or take it personally.
What can you do instead?
The best way I know how to do this is to sit down. By experimenting I found that if I sit down on the floor or lower than whoever is upset, it will often deescalate the situation and the other person may feel more powerful and/or in control. I also write. This helps me keep my mouth shut and remember to listen. Writing shows others I am listening and slows down the interaction. I want them to feel heard. Reflecting back what they said can also help them edit their own words and be more specific in what they mean.
2. Find the feeling. Expressing feelings is not easy. For some it may be nearly impossible. If understanding your own feelings and expressing them is easy for you, you may not understand how difficult or next to impossible this can be for others. Giving them time to process and share without getting impatient or assuming that they are being obstinate can be very helpful for them to try. However, even with patience and time some will need your help to express their feelings. I have found that asking questions or stating what I think they are feeling in the form of a question gives them the words to share what they can not get out. Trying to be their voice validates them, and it feels so good to be understood–even if we don’t agree. Example, “You felt sad because you wanted to come find me, and mad because the teacher said “no?” Letting them correct you, rather than coming up with all the words on their own can lead to mutual understanding of what they are going through.
3. What do they want or wish? Like all children and people, we often have a strong preference. It really helped me as an adult to realize that what I thought I really wanted or needed was actually a preference. I don’t need you to be quiet, I would just greatly prefer quiet. I don’t need to do what I planned, I prefer to follow my plan rather than get interrupted. Realizing that many of my needs and wants were really preferences has helped me not feel like I’m dying if I don’t get my way.
The dragon comes out to fight for what we need. Many times we start conflict because our needs are not getting met, and we feel powerless on our own to create that change. If we can find out what the other (or the other part of ourself) needs or wants, and if we can find a win/win solution or even a first/then solution, the dragon will often settle into a satisfied puppy. I have to look for solutions. But, if no solution can be found, if I really just have to accept life’s “no,” then realizing I just would like things to be different can bring a more accepting perspective and understanding. None of us gets everything we prefer. But, we are safe. We will survive. We are blessed….
4. What do they need to feel better?
What helps you calm yourself? I was surprised to find that distraction is a valid coping mechanism. So many books warn against “numbing.”
I suppose if you don’t know what the problem is, distraction will never help you solve or settle it. But, it is a valid strategy. Often people know what will help them feel better. A cry. A hug. A puzzle. A walk. A shower. A book. Do you know how to calm yourself and ask for what you need? It can be difficult when you are upset to think of these things and disengage from the rage.
Recently I was grieving and crying. My mom suggested thinking of something fun to do. I eventually would have moved on, but the interruption and redirection of thoughts and energy helped me recover faster.
I have learned it is important to not take responsibility for someone else’s feelings. Likewise, it is my responsibility to care for and recover from my own. It is easier if we know how to stay calm and see through the dragon’s smoke. The dragon is not really big, powerful and scary. It is hurt, small and afraid.
May you see the heart behind the dragon
in yourself and others.