Do you have a relationship with an explosive person?

Which of these survival strategies works the best for you?

1. Try to intimidate them so they’ll leave you alone.
2. Try to defend yourself.
3. Take the moral high ground and insist you are right and the explosive person is wrong.

If you tend to do any of these behaviors when another person is exploding emotionally, you are likely to make a bad situation very bad. A person who is exploding emotionally is impaired. The judgment and control center of their brain is not in full operation. The stuff coming out of their mouth is undigested thought. Do not expect anything you try to put into their mind with your words to be understood—in fact, it is more likely to be misunderstood.

The dilemma is that the little man or woman inside of you wants to hurry up and fix the problem. It wants to be understood, to be treated fairly and kindly, and to receive social approval. So it may be screaming back, “You can’t say that!” or “You don’t understand!” But if the words in your head come out of your mouth—than there are two problems—not just one. And things could get unsafe.

First Goal: Keep Yourself Calm

Emotionally explosive people, during their fits, are on zombie-mode, not fully conscious. If you go into zombie-mode also, it will be like two people throwing garbage at each other. You will have a better outcome by staying calm and focusing on de-escalating the explosion.

It is true that you deserve respect. Your feelings are as important as the feelings of the emotionally explosive person. It is important that you stand up for yourself—but do it at a time when the emotionally explosive person’s world is not narrowed down to a dot of distress.

If you can’t stay calm when the person you are interacting with is exploding, buy some time or bring in reinforcements. Say something like, “I want to hear what is upsetting you, and I want to give you my full attention. Hold that thought while I get a drink (or get a support person). If you need to, remove yourself totally from the situation so the exploder can have some time to calm down before expressing his or her distress.

Second Goal: Deescalate the Situation

The goal of the emotionally explosive person is ultimately to have someone understand their distress. Their mindset, however, may limit their ability to put the distress into words. They may be one big ball of exploding fur—and may need to start the process by communicating intensity rather than ideas.

Intensity is often expressed by hurling insults at whoever is there. The mouth may say something shocking and hurtful, like “you are an #^@&!” The words may fall into the category of verbal abuse—an issue to be dealt with—but later. For now, the translation is “My feelings are so intense I don’t know where to start.”

You will most likely successfully de-escalate the explosion by showing empathy. Do reflective listening that attends not only to the content of the explosive person’s words, but also to their feelings.

An Example

So, say you are dealing with an exploder and they accuse you of being a control freak.

Here are some examples of good responses:

* “So, what do control freaks do that really get under your skin?”
* “You feel really stuck. Tell me about it.”
* “You are having such powerful feelings that blood wants to come out of your mouth.”

Here are some examples of responses that are not so good.

* “Me, a control freak? Look who’s talking!”
* “You are just a big bully.”
* “Calm Down! You are out of control!”

Another Example

Your exploder says, “You’ve never cared about me.”

Good responses:

* “Sometimes, it feels to you like no one understands your pain.”
* “You would like me to understand where you care coming from.”
* “You feel unappreciated.”

Not so good responses:

* “Now, that’s not fair at all. You know that’s not true. You’re just trying to hurt me—and you’re doing a good job.”
* “Oh come on, you’re just being a big baby.”
* “Shut up and stop playing ‘poor-me’.”

It usually does not take a lot of empathic listening to finally get to the real issues. Your exploder may be angry at himself or herself. They may feel unlovable, or fearful, or lonely. They may be feeling unbearable stress. At the point they let their real feelings surface, you can begin to have a meaningful conversation. Your skillfulness will have saved the day and strengthened a relationship. Now, that is moxie mental health!


Author's Bio: 

Katrina Holgate Miller, PhD writes about the strengths and skills people use to face their mental health issues with empowerment (moxie) rather than victimization.

She has turned her 30+ years of clinical experience with thousands of clients into stories and tips about how her clients were able to recover from mental illness and addiction and return to the roles they enjoyed during times of wellness. She is author of the website Her email is