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How to Deal with Someone Who Acts Crazy
Author and psychiatrist Mark Goulston drove home after a difficult day. Preoccupied, he inadvertently cut off a pickup truck. The driver of the pickup honked angrily at Goulston, who waved back. Still driving along in a mental fog, and less than a 1,000 yards down the road, Goulston cut off the pickup truck again. This enraged the driver, who caught up with Goulston and forced him to the side of the road. The driver jumped out of his truck and raced to Goulston’s car. The man was enormous – 6 feet 6 inches tall and 300 pounds – and angry.
The big man hammered on Goulston’s window, cursing. Goulston rolled down the window said calmly, “Have you ever had such an awful day that you’re just hoping to meet someone who will pull out a gun, shoot you and put you out of your misery? Are you that someone?” Dumbfounded, the man replied, “What?”
“Talking to crazy is an Olympic-level skill, and you’ll be less likely to experience defeat if you exercise beforehand and develop some serious mental muscle.”
The average person might try to reason with or argue with a big, angry guy. Either response probably would have provoked him to attack Goulston. The man’s irrational tantrum popped Goulston out of his fog. His experience as a psychiatrist and his professional instincts kicked in, and he found a way to disarm the driver’s wrath. Goulston told the befuddled pickup driver about his dreadful day and explained he’d been driving in a stupor. He said he often screwed “everything up,” implying that he wouldn’t mind if the big trucker put him out of his misery. This crazy tactic worked. “It’ll be OK,” the bewildered behemoth reassured him. “Just relax.” He lumbered back to his truck and drove away.
“If you learn to let people cry, and calmly observe what happens, you’ll see that their outbursts typically lead them to a calm place where you can reason with them.”
“Lean into the Crazy”
Instead of treating the driver like a threat, Goulston leaned into the man’s irrational, angry behavior. Goulston’s unexpected reaction altered the dynamics of the situation. His oddball statement deflated the driver, transforming him from a screaming nutcase into a compassionate person who understood Goulston and wanted to help him.
Though it’s counterintuitive, leaning into the crazy is your best tactic when someone acts irrationally. This parallels what to do if a dog bites down onto your hand. Trying to remove your hand from the dog’s mouth will only cause it to bite down harder. Instead, force your hand further into the dog’s mouth. The dog will release its teeth so it can swallow. Treating crazy people as if they’re crazy increases their craziness. Instead, “break through to the people you need to reach.”
“You need to know why arguing or reasoning with crazy doesn’t work, while leaning into the crazy does.”
Irrational behavior manifests four ways:
“If you don’t identify and handle your own irrationality, you’ll sabotage your efforts to get through to the people you need to reach.”
- People can’t see the world as it really is.
- They make nonsensical statements.
- They make decisions that hurt instead of help them.
- They become even more obstreperous when you try to reason with them.
“The Sanity Cycle”
When a colleague, friend or family member acts crazy, apply a six-step sanity-cycle process:
“When people are emotional, they often say or do things before they think.”
- Recognize that people who are acting irrationally can’t think rationally at that moment. Their crazy behavior has a deep-seated emotional basis that you can’t talk away.
- Identify how their insanity affects you. Do you feel “angry, guilty, ashamed, afraid, frustrated or otherwise crazy yourself?” This insight will help you interact more calmly.
- Realize that other people’s crazy behavior has nothing to do with you. Don’t let their actions cause an “amygdala hijack,” which happens when “the threat-sensing part of your brain” prevents you from thinking rationally and may trigger your fear or anger.
- Stay calm and nonjudgmental. Try to see the irrational person’s perspective. Be inventive – even counterintuitive – in your reaction to alter the situation radically.
- Show you are on the crazy person’s side and that you aren’t a threat. Don’t try to quiet him or her down. Encourage venting. Demonstrate support. Never mirror any aggression. Apologizing to someone can help you talk him or her down from an explosive emotional state so he or she will listen to you.
- Once the person is calm, help him or her reach a more rational state of mind.
“Garden-variety craziness, just like real psychosis, isn’t just something you can talk people out of. It doesn’t respond to facts or logic…they won’t just suddenly snap out of it.”
What’s Each Person’s Kind of Craziness?
All irrational people have their “own brand of crazy.” Identifying their modus operandi (MO) – their particular manner and style of irrationality – will help you determine how best to deal with them.
To detect MOs, look for these manifestations: “Emotional” people like to vent. “Logical” people are factual and condescending. “Needy” folks whine constantly, while those who are “fearful” find everything scary. “Hopeless” staffers hide from the world, “martyred” employees never ask for help, “bullies” attack you and the “know-it-all” believes you’re always wrong. Particularly avoid the “sociopathic” person who has no conscience and will try to frighten you.
“When good and loving people feel overwhelmed by intolerable hateful and cruel thoughts, they will do anything to get away from them, including taking aim at you.”
Your Own Brand of Crazy
Everyone possesses a degree of craziness, including you. To deal successfully with other people’s irrationality, you must first deal effectively with your own. Certain negative “internal messages” can skew your reality, for example, “I’ll never be good enough,” “I can’t trust people” or “People will hurt me.” Note your negative internal messages, and try to neutralize them.
“Stripping you of your poise is among an irrational person’s best weapons, and refusing to surrender your poise is one of your best defenses.”
Counter these negative messages with positivity. Be upbeat with everyone, especially the most negative people. As you become more positive, you’ll find the difficult people around you will become progressively more positive and sane.
“Back to Sanity”
As you minimize your craziness, use one or more of these techniques to talk irrational people back to sanity. These strategies are useful with irrational people in your life with whom you are not intimate, such as colleagues, employees, acquaintances or strangers:
“If you can figure out the person’s M.O., you can turn this information to your advantage.”
- “The belly roll” – When people attack you, don’t try to dominate them. They’ll only attack you more. Act like a dog in a fight: It submits by exhibiting its belly to its opponent, as if to say, “You are the dominant dog.” Bequeath power to the person who acts crazy, and turn yourself from a threat into an ally.
- “The A-E-U technique” – This means, “apologize, empathize, uncover.” An apology works wonders, even if you did nothing wrong. Demonstrate empathy by telling the person you’ve thought about what being in his or her situation must be like. To uncover, put the other person’s negative thoughts about you into words. Skip this step if the crazy-acting person hates you or if you’re feeling “emotionally fragile.”
- “Time travel” – People fight over what happened in the past or what’s happening now. Focus on the future instead. Marshall Goldsmith, the author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, suggests that you should say, “I can tell that I’m doing or failing to do a lot of things, and this has upset you for a long time. Going forward, what in your mind’s eye would you like me to do differently?”
- “The eye of the hurricane” – People who rant and rave can seem completely crazy. Yet calm exists at the eye of hurricane, at the deep center of insane-seeming behavior. Try to reach that hidden, interior calm. After the screaming ends, ask how you can make the irrational person feel better.
- “Digging down to disappointment” – When irrational people insult you, do they mean it? No, the critical person may feel disappointed in you. Say, “I can see that you’re really angry at me: Tell me, do you hate me, or are you just incredibly disappointed in me for doing X (or failing to do X)?” Disappointment is often the wellspring of rage.
- “The fishbowl” – Speak with your eyes by using the fishbowl exercise. Two people sit across from each other without speaking. They stare into each other’s eyes. They begin to “feel empathy toward each other.” Use the same exercise with someone who is acting unbalanced. When you immerse in the fishbowl, you can converse empathetically.
- “The butter-up” – Know-it-alls love to demonstrate their superiority. You can’t win by being defensive or acting churlishly when they treat you poorly. Lean into a know-it-all’s “reality” by indicating that he or she is a genius and deserves maximum respect. Give know-it-alls the regard they crave. When they calm down, gently explain that sarcasm and a know-it-all attitude hurts them and won’t help their situation.
- “Executive order” – Some people can’t ask for help because they can’t bear the idea that someone might turn them down. They will never ask, so – in the case of an employee, for example – order them to do so. Afterward, make sure the person follows through.
- “Coup contrecoup” – If you smash your forehead, your brain suffers injury twice: at the point of impact and again directly across your brain, when it bangs up against the back of your skull. This is known as a coup contrecoup injury. If someone is sarcastic to you, bang right back at them, but do it intelligently.
- “I know what you’re hiding” – Sociopaths keep secrets. If a sociopath enters your life, get him or her out of it as fast as you can. Sometimes you can’t. If so, warn the sociopath you know what he or she has to hide and if he or she keeps trying to harm you, you’ll tell others about the secret. Most likely, the sociopath will go bother someone else.
“Staying in control during a conversation with an irrational person [is hard] because you need to remain calm even as you’re experiencing a nearly overwhelming urge to give in to anger or fear.”
“Recoupling” and “Shock Absorbers”
You can turn to a different set of strategies and techniques when craziness enters your personal life – when your relatives, loved ones or significant others exhibit irrational behavior.
Recoupling therapy, which Goulston originally designed to help divorced couples reunite, can help two people who have problems maintaining a loving relationship. In this therapy, each person commits to becoming the other’s “sponsor.” Each person monitors the other’s attempts to handle life’s “upsets, frustrations and disappointments.” Each day, they report to one another on how they did and “cheer each other on.”
“Rather than glossing over the pain of people who are feeling highly emotional or afraid or hopeless, your best approach may be to head straight for it.”
Another approach, the “shock absorber,” can help when tension breaks out between a couple at home. Imagine that one person has a terrible day and vents about it to the other. Often the second person doesn’t want to hear the first person’s problems. The typical response might be, “Let’s relax and talk about something else.” Well, that’s the worst thing to say. Dismissing a nervous, worried or stressed person is like pouring gasoline on a fire. The first person was angry and upset, so suggesting that you want to change the subject only provokes more anger. Instead, the partner should function as a shock absorber by commiserating and demonstrating empathy.
“All of us – even if we’re strong at the core – will occasionally lose it when stress causes our brains to misalign.”
“Regular Crazy”…and “Serious Crazy”
Even when you handle yourself and a difficult situation perfectly, things still may not work out. Dealing with crazy is a steep hill to climb. Building a set of versatile skills gives you the best chance to transform a scary, pressure-filled encounter into a productive conversation.
However, that works for regular crazy. Don’t try to handle with someone else’s serious insanity that provokes a severe amygdala hijack. If you are dealing with someone with a severe emotional disorder or a mental illness, “you can’t talk to crazy all by yourself.”
“Happiness is…tied to how you perceive and emotionally react to the events and people around you.”
Enlist professional help. Turn things over to a psychiatrist, psychologist or another mental-health professional. Someone is dealing with serious craziness if they have mental illness, “severe behavior problems, personality disorders, drug or alcohol addiction, homicidal thinking” or “suicidal thinking or behavior.” Involve a psychiatrist for people with mental illnesses, huge emotional problems, or violent or suicidal behavior. Call on a psychotherapist to help people who can’t cope with life.
People with serious mental and emotional problems also can benefit greatly from psychosocial rehabilitation, which extends psychiatric or psychological treatment into the real world. Also engage a professional if your efforts to deal with “garden-variety irrationality” – for example, an impossible-to-control teenager – prove unsuccessful. You can do a lot, but you can’t do it all.