Coping with other people’s bad moods

When others are in a bad mood, we don’t have to react and follow them. Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

Much of mental health depends on how other people behave towards us. Babies depend on how their parents and carers attend to them. Children depend more widely on relationships with teachers and peers. Young adults can be very dependent on positive signals from their friendship networks. Through life, we are also dependent on how we are treated by our boss, our suppliers, our customers, our colleagues, and those we meet in daily life.

When people come to me for counselling, we can only work on the client. I would sometimes love to go out and change others in a client’s life – to make their parents, colleagues and friends be more caring and inclusive. But, usually, I can’t change third party behaviour: I can only work with the client themselves to improve the way they manage, and cope with, the treatment of others.

One of the core skills we learn through life, is the ability to handle other people’s varying moods without becoming too disturbed ourselves. What are the best ways of coping when others go quiet or disappear emotionally; when they get angry or irritable; when they blame us for their problems without listening or understanding?

Here are some suggestions.

#1 – SPREAD OUT YOUR ‘EMOTIONAL PORTFOLIO’

We shouldn’t become too dependent on one or two people for our emotional welfare. Otherwise we can become depressed when they are depressed, and edgy when they are edgy. In financial investment, we balance our portfolios so that we are not exposed to too much of one particular risk. In emotional investment, we can do the same thing. In particular, we can have alliances in six zones:

  1. Home – immediate family and housemates
  2. Work – boss, colleagues and network
  3. Social – friends accumulated from the past
  4. Health – therapeutic relationships (counselling, gym, welfare activities)
  5. Creative – those who share our interests and hobbies
  6. Caring – those we choose to help on a voluntary basis

If relationships become strained in one zone, we still have all other zones to sustain us. How does this help us with others’ moods? Well, it means that if one person in one area changes their behaviour, we can respond with more strength and balance.

#2 – BECOME OPEN AND FLEXIBLE IN MOST AREAS

When those close to us are in a mood, we can be very tempted to join them in that bad mood. They will even invite us – we will notice lots of ways in which they will try to start a fight, or create tension. They may pick on things that are not right, imply subtly that we are at fault, and generally create a hostile environment.

If we enter into all the little battles, then we will find ourselves drawn into the bad atmosphere. All it takes is one sharp comment from us, and an unnecessary argument may erupt. It is better to become open and flexible, by listening and watching carefully, but not fighting too much.

One example is rude comments. If someone is rude to us, and we are rude back, then the whole atmosphere becomes rude. If, however, we respond with silence, or curiosity, then the other person’s rudeness becomes much more obvious, and we stay less affected by it.

We can treat such times as training in flexibility. It doesn’t mean that a rude boss, or partner, or parent, is right to be so. But it does mean that we are using the experience as an opportunity to learn resilience and adaptability. Afterwards, when the mood is over, we can raise any issues we want to, directly or indirectly. For now, we can remain open and kind.

#3 – IMPOSE VERY SIMPLE BOUNDARIES WHERE APPROPRIATE

To prevent abuse, and to stop the other going too far, we do need to confront some aspects of moody behaviour as they happen. For example, if someone is physically violent, then in our society that is a no-no, and immediate withdrawal may be necessary. Equally, if someone is in danger of causing serious damage, we may wish to warn them not to go any further, or to advise them of the consequences.

A clear ‘stop’ instruction can be simple and effective here, and is often encouraged in self-defence courses.

SUMMARY

When those around us have bad moods, we can easily get drawn into the bad atmosphere, and become reactive.

However, being reactive back usually makes the situation worse.

We can make sure our ’emotional portfolio’ is wide-ranging, so that we are not over-reliant on one or two people in our lives to be always smiling.

We can become open and flexible when individuals in our lives have bad moods and are provocative. We can use it as self-development practice.

In more extreme situations, we can also show clearly where a boundary has been crossed, saying ‘stop’, and pointing out the consequences.