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How To Deal With An Emotional Terrorist

We all have met her (Yes, it could be a him as well.)

She’s stormy. We might attribute it to her artistic nature (whether or not she’s the “creative type”). But she attributes her storminess, aka angry outbursts, to everything and everyone else. You see, you are responsible for her outbursts, tantrums, complaints and upsets.

Because you have something she needs or wants—a contact, a job lead, a network, a recipe, a vacation home—at some point, she’ll be sure to follow up her outburst with a non-apology.

The words, “I am sorry. Will you forgive me?” and the necessary corrective action are usually not in her playbook. Especially the corrective action. She actually might be able to choke out the words, “I’m sorry,” but what she really means is “I’m sorry I have to apologize in order to get what I want.”

Or, she’s negative, complaining, dumping. She manipulates you with her tales of woe. Obviously, most tales of woe are not manipulations. If someone’s been hurt or is in pain, it might take a while until they can work things through.

But if you find yourself constantly listening to her tales of woe and feel “dumped” on, watch out. You can’t get her off the phone. She gets angry when you say, “I can’t take anymore. I need a break”.

My advice? Step back and depersonalize the situation. It isn’t really about you, anyway.

The ET might have a personality disorder or two or three (it isn’t uncommon!) Her psyche may be so raw/damaged/empty that almost every moment in time traumatic for her, which is why she lashes out at you. When you’re on the receiving end you freeze, shut-down, cry, panic. When you and she have a conversation, your heart might race. You also might sweat, get nervous, confused, or angry.

What can you do?

According to Jewish teachings, every encounter/event in your life is a message to you designed to benefit you in some deep, personal way. By focusing on the potential for your own personal growth in even painful encounters with ETs, you can actually diffuse the situation. Since we have to deal with difficult people (including ourselves, sometimes), throughout the course of our lives, it’s a good idea to learn how to handle it. Start with some self-talk.

Self Talk-Take a deep breath. Here’s some sample self-talk when dealing with an ET:

This is her garbage, let her take it outside.

She’s not my mirror and I’m not her mirror.

It’s her stuff, not mine.

I am calm.

And so on.

When an ET sees that her negativity-dumping, manipulations, insults, abuse, tantrums, etc., are simply not getting “at” you, she’ll have nothing to “feed” on. She might leave or hang up the phone or if you’re fortunate she might even change her behavior when dealing with you in the future!

In many cases, people with personality disorders are able to control certain behaviors in specific situations. Remember, if she gains nothing from her negative interactions with you, she’ll very possibly change her behavior when she’s around you or limit contact.

Psychiatrist Judith Orloff calls these people “Emotional Vampires” and recommends not interacting with these kinds of people. She also recommends taking a test in her book, Emotional Freedom, to see if you are an Emotional Vampire.

Dr. Orloff has deep insight into personality disorders. But what happens when you simply can’t avoid these people?

You might be the son or daughter or sibling of an ET. You might have married one. You might work for one.  Even your teacher or professor might be an ET!

A colleague mentioned that a teller at her local branch is an ET. She realized this when she found herself driving to another branch to avoid her!

Remember, the only control you have is over yourself. Limit contact if feasible. Do positive self-talk. Do not verbally (or internally), take responsibility for her garbage.

We also developed a simple, two-step approach:

1. Name the Behavior-When an ET dumps on you, huffs and complains, sobs, or whatever say “I see that you are huffing and puffing, sighing, sobbing, saying lots of negative things, etc.”

2. Return Ownership-After naming the behavior, say “What can you do to help yourself?” Or, “Is there anything you can think of that you can do to help yourself?” It is important to include in the phrasing of this question the word “you” and/or “yourself.”

It’s fairly simple. Do not name her feelings for her. Don’t say, “I see you are feeling annoyed, angry, sad.”

Don’t talk about her emotions or yours.

Don’t ask her how/if you can help her.

Don’t try to make things “better” for her.

We’d like to hear from you if you’ve tried this two part approach. Let us know if it worked for you!

Note: It’s important to distinguish between an ET and someone going through a hard time, who needs a shoulder to cry on or a hug and some empathy. Judith Orloff’s book can help you tell the difference. Or you can simply Google “personality disorders” and explore the traits of anti-social personality disorder, borderline pd, narcissistic pd, histrionic pd, etc.

Photo: StockXchange, Thedore99

How To Deal With An Emotional Terrorist

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2011). How To Deal With An Emotional Terrorist. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Aug 2011
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