Dysregulating the Dysregulator
Why some people need to trigger you.
Posted January 16, 2023 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- It is possible to feel dysregulated by another person who psychologically benefits from your unhappiness.
- "Projective Identification" is a psychological term introduced by Melanie Klein that can help us understand this phenomenon.
- Folks in the Narcissitic or Borderline Personality Disorder range often use others to regulate and do so uncousciously.
- There are useful techniques that can aide in staying centered in the face of a dysregulating person.
Your car was just dented by somebody talking on a cell phone. You’re in a parking lot and it’s ridiculous. You get out to examine your vehicle and she’s right in your face.
- What’s wrong with you!
Your spouse comes home from work after a bad day. He’s bristling and you feel it coming. "I can’t believe you left the dishes in the sink!"
- What’s wrong with you!
Your ex, once again, doesn’t inform you that he’s leaving town and sticks you with the kids. Of course, you love them. You’ll take them. You push back. Can’t I just have a good time? "You were so controlling in the marriage and it’s just a day or two."
- What’s wrong with you!
These three people are dysregulated. They feel bad. Angry. Frustrated. Empty. Worried. Something. And instead of talking about it, living with it in some way, they dump it on you.
One way of understanding this problem is a concept called "projective identification," a process introduced by the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. It is the wish to make the other person upset oftentimes in the very same way you’re feeling, and then blaming them for being the problem. It is a powerful psychological mechanism that is sometimes tough to catch in the moment. It's like a transfer of unhappiness from one person to another.
- You should feel agitated because your car is dented and she might have to deal with increased insurance rates.
- Your spouse is just annoyed and flooded because of work. You’re in the way. The dishes are not what’s at stake. He feels agitated and needs to make you feel the same way.
- Your ex is so self-preoccupied that he is not even thinking about what’s best for the children. Or you. He wants what he wants right now. Like a teenager in an adult body. When you stand up for yourself he just attacks. You may cave because you love the kids and prefer to avoid a fight.
And then something truly magical happens. Once the dysregulator passes the hot potato, they feel better. Less angry. Less frustrated. Like misery loves company, just worse. The dysregulator feels lighter now that you are upset and they appear to be in charge.
You feel agitated. A load of unhappiness just came your way and you’re not prepared. You push back. And what you have to say is rational.
- But you were on your cell phone.
- You’re just pissed off at your boss.
- Can’t you just grow up and take care of the kids?
The response? You’re out of control. Just can’t take criticism. You always have it your way.
- What’s wrong with you!
So now you’re feeling badly and dysregulated a bit. Out of nowhere. And what are they feeling? Just contempt for the person who is now feeling as badly as they had been feeling a few moments ago. Yes, the world can be unfair.
You see, dysregulated people often like to dysregulate other people. They act a bit like an emotional vampire that feels nourished at the expense of others. If you were to confront them, they would likely strike back because the whole process is often unconscious. They feel more full inside. You feel more depleted. It’s the way some people actually regulate.
A real-life secret.
But there’s wisdom here. Once you understand that somebody is using you to regulate themselves, you can decide not to participate. It’s hard because they’re good at it and know the buttons to push. But you can still decide.
Tips for managing a dysregulator
Isolation: Most dysregulated people have difficulty being alone. If you simply walk away, they’re stuck with their unhappiness. “This isn’t going anywhere.” “I am hanging up.” (Or not responding to a hostile text.) “I will not respond until you calm down.”
Self-Regulation: Recognize that you’re being triggered. But the real trigger is somebody who’s already triggered. Breathe deep. Take your time. Most important things do not require an immediate response. Just deal with the facts. Anything else is out of bounds. The more someone’s dysregulated, the better off you are just centering. They may become more dysregulated, but that’s their problem.
Self-Knowledge: Under the category of self-regulation, take a hard look at how you may need to fix people. Or, that you can’t, for instance, tolerate an argument. You may have to tolerate fleeting thoughts, such as "It's unfair," "How dare she/he," "But you did X," and many other triggering ideas. Just know if you respond to a dysregulator by getting triggered yourself, they are, indeed, running the show. Good therapy can help. You may have an enmeshment problem and feel the need to make things right. That makes you red meat for the dysregulator.
Reinforcements: Sometimes you may need reinforcements. If your teenager is ruining your day, their other parent may be of service. If somebody is raging after a car accident, it’s okay to back off and call the police. If an ex is exploiting a divorce agreement, think about legal counsel.
Helping Others Regulate: We all need other people to help us regulate. Sometimes you are upset and someone in your life offers tender, loving care. That’s fine. People do it for you. You do it for them. But some folks don’t know how to sit with unhappiness. It’s just too much. In fact, if they were by themselves for more than 48 hours, they would probably get depressed. Those folks often have poorly working character traits. In fact, one of the hallmarks of character disorders in the Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder range is the compulsion to regulate by using other people in a way that’s completely unconscious. They can make you feel good when idealizing. They can make you feel terrible when they’re frustrated or unhappy.
Yes, it's unconscious. Most people who attempt to emotionally dysregulate you do so because they are under the spell of their own dysregulation and are not aware they’re doing it. They will likely blame you if it’s brought to their attention. That’s why it's so crazy-making.
So wake up. We all use others to help us regulate. The best thing is to learn to regulate ourselves or find reliable people who have a calming influence when we are upset.
Some unfortunate folks have enormous difficulties with dysregulation and use people around them to calm down—by passing along the pain. It's like the game of hot potato; the potato being painful emotions.
The method is to instigate disruption in others, which inevitably causes relief.
This is unacceptable.
You have a mind and personality all your own. If you learn a bit about yourself and what you’re dealing with, you'll have more agency in the outcome. Like an actor in a play, and with hard internal work, you can decide not to play the role the dysregulator is writing for you. Relief is possible.
You know who you are. It is hard work sometimes. Get the support you need. It's indeed possible to dysregulate the dysregulator. It is good for everyone involved.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.