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.
Have you ever seen those parents in the grocery store with the screaming child? Are you the parent of that screaming child? Maybe worse, have you ever felt like the kid in full melt-down mode in your heart– just barely holding it together in public because adults don’t behave like that–or do we?
The grocery store incidents are less common now because delivery and pick up have become some of the most useful services for parents with a less than cooperative child. But, it still happens.
One of the most infuriating things a parent can do in these situations is pacify the child with what he or she wants. You are literally conditioning him or her to act terribly to get what he or she wants. I have had a middle school student who did just that. It apparently can work for a long, long time. What should the parent do? Well, obviously stick by the “no” and keep those boundaries. But, wait……. have you ever worked with an autistic child? Sometimes the obvious solution literally doesn’t work. It doesn’t teach them anything and becomes an impossible situation for everyone.
In a completely lose/lose situation from the get go, parents can ignore it, and have the other customers irritated that the noise is not removed. They can “give in” by doing what they know will satisfy or silence the child and be not only judged by others as a terrible, wimpy parent causing all the problems with youth today, but also judging themselves and feeling like a terrible parent. Or they can go home without what they needed and give up on why they braved being in public in the first place. Being in a regularly judged and miserably unfun situation often is the price you pay for loving a child, especially a difficult or traumatized one.
If it were just toddlers who lost it and became unreasonable, we would not have these problems. The solutions, although taxing, are obvious. Pick the kid up and force them to do what is best or necessary. Take them home. Feed them; hug them; nap them, or ignore a fit at home. But life is never that simple, and we humans are not so different from our little ones.
The short answer is that you can’t. It is not possible to reason with an unreasonable person. Unreasonable people of any age are, by definition, not able to reason at that time. Emotions have apparently gotten the best of their thinking ability. We all have survival fight, flight and freeze responses that interrupt logical thinking at times.
But there is a lot of hope. As a mother, teacher and teacher’s helper, I have had a lot of experience with humans in melt-down mode including those with special needs. Knowing how to identify what will help and not giving in to fear or hopelessness can be so helpful. You don’t have to be a victim even if you do not enjoy what you must pass through while loving an unreasonable person.
The first step is to realize that you will not overcome irrational behavior with reasoning. However, you will start to handle it well by staying reasonable and calm yourself. Like putting on gloves and surveying the scene first in an emergency situation, take a deep breath and know that you can deal with this without joining this person on their emotional ride. You will be better able to help them calm down and deal with their upset if you see their struggle as theirs and stay firmly grounded.
As a young mother, I was very reactive. Every time my son threw a fit, I got very upset myself. Of course I didn’t like it. Of course my mirror neurons were firing and making me empathize and feel his upset or pain. A therapist once told me that children are very good at making you feel what they feel. I didn’t know that. He said, “think how you are feeling, that might be exactly how he was feeling.” I was feeling upset, afraid, and out of control of the situation. That matched what he was probably feeling as well.
I remember the first time I held him firmly in a rocking chair at church, meant for nursing mothers, while he kicked and screamed. He was getting too old for this behavior, and it wasn’t improving. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t growing up. I tested my ability to stay calm and rocked him while he threw a fit. I gently told him, “You can’t make me not love you.” This set me free. I saw that nothing he could do could force me to abandon him or not care. He could not upset me unless I let him. I felt this great love and freedom explode in me as I endured his nasty behavior until it ended in a crying embrace. The calm after the storm was wonderful and bonding. I was emotionally available for that because I had not become upset myself. It was wonderful.
“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” –Leonardo da Vinci
So, I challenge you to find the power within yourself however you can to not go on that ride. Have compassion on yourself without pity. You are doing the best you can, but you are not a victim. You are choosing this. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow even if in the future there will be many more storms.