Here are some underlying principles that might help you in dealing with Alice.
You cannot control Alice’s behavior. You cannot predict Alice’s behavior. You cannot prevent Alice’s behavior. Alice is gonna do what Alice is gonna do, which is cry and shower displeasure and guilt on her family, who will cheerfully pass it onto you, because that’s how they roll.
Alice is going to throw tantrums and be shitty NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO. I think that is helpful to know. Keep reminding yourself. Alice will find ways to be shitty and intrusive, because she is a shitty intrusive control freak who needs to make everything about her and who will projectile vomit blame all over everyone.
Also, Alice is not going to get better. She is not going to have a sudden revelation of self-awareness and stop this stuff. She may mellow with age and time, but she is always going to be somewhat like this.
Here’s what’s powerful about realizing this: Once a person shows that they don’t give a shit about the social contract and have no shame about throwing adult temper tantrums in public, it kind of frees you from giving a shit about what they think of you. They hold the threat of their tantrum (displeasure, guilt trip, sulk, whatever) over the family if they don’t get what they want, but you have the power to say “Huh” and not really even acknowledge that it affects you. (…)
When Alice throws a tantrum, she wants you to inventory your behavior and wonder what you’ve done to upset her, and she wants you to walk on eggshells and be worried about upsetting her and to actively try not to upset her (Secret: This will always be a mysterious, moving target and you will never figure out how to prevent upsetting her). Her family wants this too – it’s like they are afraid she’ll turn green and bust out into nothing but purple shorts and wreck the secret flying Avengers lair dining room. Once you figure out “Oh wait, what did I do to cause this…NOTHING, because Alice reacts like this to EVERYTHING” you are free of running that little guilt-game on yourself. Alice, like Hulk, is always angry.
I will say that the de-escalation techniques that Captain Awkward mention do work. It is a tried and tested way of talking someone down out of the Crazy Tree to continue talking to them like they aren’t having a complete shit fit because eventually they will realize that your ruthless sanity cannot be impacted by their childish bullshit, and if they want their way they’re going to have to stop throwing feces and sit down on the ground under the Tree with the adults and actually work shit out like a human.
I will also say that this is fucking exhausting, and some people aren’t worth it.
Yeah, I fucking said it.
There’s one born every day.
Many of my dear friends are entirely ruled by other people’s tantrums. This is because they are nice people with a capacity for empathy and a willingness to constantly re-evaluate their behavior to look for what they’ve done wrong so that they can be good to people in the future and not make everyone hurt. These people are fantastic friends for those of us who try not to make unreasonable impositions on their willingness to examine and modify themselves to please others.
They’re also suckers.
My friends–and even me, when I am falling prey to habits I learned from my unstable parents as a child–are nothing more than easy prey for people who think the world will come crashing down all around them if their emotional incontinence is not treated by everyone around them like a world-ending catastrophe. It’s hard for them and for me to say, “You know, actually, I have decided I don’t care about your feelings anymore.”
That makes us terrible people, right?
Not if you only say it to people who are forcing you to don that kind of emotional armor. If they’re going to use their feelings to control you, the only way you can avoid being bound by them is to be willing to get a little callous and say, “Nope! You are assuming that I care whether you are having a total meltdown. Turns out I don’t. Toodles, child.”
If you were even contemplating making this about how I just don’t understand your situation, let me flash my Enabler Cred and tell you that I have actually been party to a suicide pact once, so I suggest you not trifle with me on this.
There has to be a point beyond which someone is just too much of a shit-show. There has to be. If not, you will surround yourself with people who get their way by being the person with the widest and bloodiest blast radius when they’ve got a problem or a desire. You will be surrounded by these people because they will drive away everyone with enough of an anchor to reality to see what they’re doing, and if you don’t get wise and leave with that exodus, you’re going to be left living in a land ruled by their ability to condition you into obedience with tantrums.
“They can’t help it, though. I mean, it’s not fair to expect them to stop abusing people.”
One thing that helped me with my parents was noticing that each could act right in public but in private would allow themselves to melt down in a way that never happened under the watchful eye of people whose opinions they had either chosen to care about or whose opinions they had no choice but to care about. In other words, they could behave like adults when they wanted to. When it was just them and me, they didn’t care enough.
We don’t choose the feelings we experience. We don’t choose what our neurochemistry does to dick our brains around, particularly in the case of people with mental illness that is not being adequately dealt with. I’ll say it again: we don’t choose the feelings we experience.
We do choose whether we tear pieces out of the people closest to us because of the feelings we’re experiencing.
Anybody who straps emotional dynamite to their chest because they’re not getting their way could generally do otherwise if they cared. They don’t. So why are you ripping yourself to pieces for them when they won’t even cease abusing you for your trouble?
That’s where I differ with some of the commenters on this entry. They were helped by telling themselves, “This person is like a child having a tantrum and they can’t help it.” It allowed them to take it less personally when someone started the process of melting down as a way of controlling the people around them, because it allowed them to say, “This is Alice’s problem and not anything I caused.” If you need to think of it that way, you can. That wasn’t my big revelation, though.
My big revelation was that no matter what I did, the person I am dealing with is a grown goddamn adult human being, and nothing I am likely to do could ever take away their control over their own behavior, so it seems way more likely that they just aren’t trying.
Acknowledging to myself, “They are just doing this because they’re mentally ill!” or “They’re just doing this because they were abused!” doesn’t really make a dent anymore. I don’t actually care anymore why someone is being shitty to me. Buttered Lilies seems to agree in the comments:
“I don’t know if it’s any help, but as a person with a remarkably shitty childhood I can say with confidence that having been abused is not a get-out-of-being-a-jerk free card.” Ditto on this. Partly because, there just aren’t any get-out-of-being-a-jerk-free cards, but mostly because, almost all abusers have been abused themselves at some point. That’s where they learned the behavior was ok in the first place. If you give people GOOBAJF cards for being abused in the past, you will never get to tell any abuser that their behavior isn’t ok, which is obviously total crap.
Just remind yourself that there’s no amount of pain or trauma that excuses abusive behavior. There is literally nothing in the world that could happen to someone that trained them to control the people around them with these kinds of fits that means you owe them your obedience. Just because you are a real fucking actual adult with the kind of ruthless sanity it takes to “manage” these people does not mean that you should.
This is extremely important to remember because there will also always be people who would rather rely on you to cope and compensate and manage than tell their friend/relative/lover/colleague/whatever to get their shit together.
Your Abuser’s Supporting Cast
There will always be people who will treat you like your job as The Sane One is to be a goddamn bullet-sponge for everyone else.
These people also suck.
Fire them all. Fire them all from your life right now. Yes, with the rational distance that I know you have if you are The Sane One you can acknowledge that they are merely the objects of this abuser’s conditioning. They are being abused too, and because they’ve internalized their abuser’s lack of control as a flaw in themselves, they want you to do it. Why? Because they are so scared of tripping this landmine. They’re so scared of the next explosion that they will make outrageous demands of themselves and of you in the hopes that they can put it off just a little longer.
Your abuser is controlling them, and they’re going to try and control you because that is how scared they are.
But do you really want people in your life who are so scared of an emotional landmine that they’ll effectively throw you on top of it because standing up for you would cause the drama that is THE WORST POSSIBLE THING? Do you want friends or lovers who care more about appeasing someone who hurts you than they care about you? Given the option, you probably do not.
“Well, so? This is just how people are.”
No, you do have the option. There are enough people with reasonable coping skills that if you bond together only with other Sane Ones, you can live without this in your life.
There is a world without this. There is a life without this.
To get it, just give the same consideration to your controlling shit-show friends and lovers and relatives and neighbors that they’re giving you.
They’re no more likely to implode without you than they were with you there, because we all know they imploded all the time anyway. They’re also never going to learn better skills if they continue being able to successfully train everyone around them into obedience by melting down when they’re defied. And trust me, that’s what they want. Love? Support? Security or safety? Those don’t mean shit if they don’t come with obedience.
Don’t believe me?
See how loved, supported, and secure they feel when you forget your place. Odds are you won’t need to, though. If you have ever lived this situation, I am sure that you can picture it quite vividly in hindsight.
Obedience is all they understand. They don’t comprehend love, support, or security in any other form. That’s what you’re dealing with.
You can give it to them, or not. That is your call.
So uh… maybe think about not doing it.