Do you know someone who tends to take every little thing you say personally and holds a long-term grudge against you?
What do you think the problem is? Is it the offense itself or could it possibly be the personality of the offended?
Sometimes it’s both. The negative effects of living with a rageful, angry, selfish, and domineering person can be significant.
The emotional, psychological, and physiological effects can also be great. A raging personality can also turn into a calm and polite personality depending on the situation. This is what keeps everyone confused and unassuming. It is certainly not easy to live with or cope with this type of personality.
This article will discuss ways you can respond/not respond as your best weapon of defense.
My job as a therapist has brought me in contact with individuals who often exhibit different levels of emotional lability. Emotional lability (sometimes referred to as pseudo-bulbar effect) refers to the frequent changes, that are uncontrollable, in one’s emotional expression.
For example, your child might wake up one morning and exhibit positive behavioral traits (prepping for school appropriately, eating breakfast on time, and getting to school without any problems), but return from school entirely different (i.e., yelling, screaming, cursing, slamming things, threatening others, etc.). Even more, your spouse might show you all the love in the world one day and the next day completely distance himself or herself from you emotionally. These patterns of emotional lability often keep us confused, blinded, in-denial, and longing for clarification.
Sadly, individuals who exhibit labile moods often always leave their “victims” asking what they could have possibly done to deserve such treatment. How do you comprehend the behaviors and moods of someone who seems to show love one moment and then pure hatred the next? It’s challenging.
Emotional lability is often a symptom of a bigger problem, such as Borderline personality disorder and other personality disorders, Bipolar disorder, Major depressive disorder, and anxiety to name just a few. Some medical conditions also can cause emotional lability such as an overactive thyroid. Certain medications can also cause emotional instability.
We cannot forget that genes and environment also play a major role in unstable behaviors. Although research remains somewhat behind on understanding pathological liars, many psychologists highlight the relationship between genes and environment as a major component in the development of pathological lying.
Coping with Labile Emotions and Behaviors
In order to cope, you must first be willing to accept the fact that something is wrong, that your loved one is behaving in ways that could be detrimental to themselves, you, and others in the long-term.
The most challenging part of living with personality disorders or emotionally labile personalities, depending on severity, is the fact that many people do not believe they need treatment or even have a problem. Many histrionic and narcissistic personalities see the world from their own perspective. Many are sensitive to rejection or opposition and will “create a fiasco” if they feel wronged.
As a therapist who has worked with personality disorders in delinquent populations, I’m all too familiar with families feeling overwhelmed, depressed, and hopeless as a result of their loved one’s behavior. Treatment is difficult and total behavior change is rarely possible. But the following tips might help you cope:
- Don’t get sucked in: Emotionally labile personalities are storms all by themselves. Crying spells, yelling matches, arguing, and confrontation are all done in dramatic fashion with little regard for consequences. It is important that you understand how to block this emotional reactivity from affecting you. Remind yourself not to get sucked in because the emotionally labile personality is often out of control and incapable of controlling themselves. You, however, can control yourself and must remain in as much control as you can.
- Build emotional barriers: You probably have experienced the “emotional wrath” of the explosive personality on multiple occasions, so you are well aware of what to expect. That being said, find ways to build emotional resilience (whether that is to develop a mantra to encourage yourself and journal about your weaknesses) in response to the histrionic personality. Journaling about your weaknesses may help you design ways to combat negative behaviors next time around. Emotional barriers are like shields and you can’t battle without them.
- Know thyself: A healthy self-esteem and personal awareness is very important when dealing with an emotionally labile personality. When upset, these personalities will often throw degrading remarks, negativity, envy, anger, and hurtful words your way. You must use that emotional barrier to protect yourself. Part of the emotional barrier is a strong awareness of who you are. Knowing who you truly are protects you from the degrading remarks this personality might thrust your way.
- Be ready: Always be ready for an outburst of some kind and know how to downplay theatrical behaviors that draw attention. The best tool for this is “planned ignoring.” Planned ignoring is a behavioral concept used with children who have behavioral problems. The idea is to plan ahead of time to ignore certain behaviors that negatively interfere with the proper flow of things.
- Use psychology: My experience with histrionic, borderline, avoidant, and narcissistic personalities with fragile egos and anger management problems is that many will fish around to find something to fight or argue about when struggling with life. In cases such as these, you want to use “psychology” to the best of your ability. Using psychology might include delving into the person’s family history and trying to determine why they act the way they act. For example, if you know that Jim was ignored by his mother and abandoned by his father as a child and now as an adult attempts to get attention with “tantrums,” your psychology would be to convince him that you are paying attention or state very clearly that you love him but cannot always give him 100% of your attention. Using psychology involves finding connections and finding ways to temper the “tiger.”
- Confront: Some explosive personalities are not easy to tame, convince, or even love at times. Some individuals are so toxic that you must confront them. Your son yells and degrades you every time you overcook a food. He calls you names and says, “I like grandmas food better, sorry!” Confronting him might sound a little like this: “Shawn, I don’t like when you say these things to me, they are hurtful and rude. I never treat you this way, so I expect you treat me the same. I don’t mind your constructive criticism, but your attitude is far from constructive.” Of course, this might turn into a heated argument that could last for days, so choose your battles wisely.
- Walk away: As much as I hate to say this, some relationships just aren’t worth struggling to keep. Some people are born toxic and years of therapy may not reduce their toxicity. In cases such as this where verbal, physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse is likely to occur, leave. No family member, friend, spouse, or even employee or colleague should have to live under such stress and strain.
- Encourage your loved one to pursue therapy: Sadly, therapy carries a bad name with many people. Most people view therapy as a place where they will be judged, controlled, or ousted. Therapy is also hard for people who have a difficult time building trust or talking about their thoughts and feelings. However, therapy can be a place where your loved one can openly communicate without feeling unheard or attacked. It could also provide the individual with skills to cope appropriately with anger. It might be helpful to schedule a free consultation with a therapist with your loved one so that the both of you could ask questions and “try out” therapy before committing.
- Consider medication: Some medications are helpful in controlling anger outbursts such as antipsychotic medications (Risperdal, Haldol) or mood stabilizers such as Seroquel. With a combination of medication management and therapy, anger outbursts can be better controlled. Also, medication and therapy combined can help a client focus on therapy and develop appropriate skills. Sometimes it is difficult to engage in therapy when emotions are difficult to control.
- Put some space between you and the other person: Sometimes just putting some distance between yourself and the other person can help straighten out a relationship, at least temporarily. Distance can help you reassess the situation, problem-solve better ways of interacting, or simply “cool off.”
As you can see, personalities that are emotionally labile are very difficult to deal with. This is why many mental health professionals provide therapy sessions, trainings, educational seminars, write articles, etc. on the topic of emotional lability. In this video, I discuss this topic a bit further for you:
So what do you think about this topic? Can you relate? How have you handled relationships involving explosive personalities?
As always, I wish you well.
This article was originally published 4/25/2018 but has been updated to reflect accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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Author: Támara Hill, MS, LPC