Meltdowns happen. It’s just a part of being human.
When someone that you love– or a person with whom you spend a lot of time– has reached his or her breaking point and is seemingly falling apart, it’s not easy to be around. For many of us, when a person in our midst is melting down, we want to do whatever we can to make things better.
Too often, however, our efforts to comfort and improve the situation for our friend, family member, co-worker, boss or acquaintance can end up making it worse!
How many times have you merely been trying to help, but the other person’s meltdown only grows more intense? This increased intensity may or may not be due to your attempted assistance, by the way.
What can easily happen is that this other person’s meltdown peaks and you find yourself upset as well.
I can remember being a young girl and encountering some of my father’s meltdowns. Thankfully, his angry outbursts were never directed at me. But, they were frightening nonetheless. I can still vividly see in my mind’s eye my father kicking in a car door in a fit of frustration.
When someone around you overflows with anger and rage or sadness and grief, you might feel compelled to help. You may also have the urge to protect yourself.
As a child, I probably mostly wanted to stay safe in the midst of my father’s tirade, but it’s likely that I also wanted to do something to make things better somehow.
Whether it’s your partner, your parent, your child, a business client or someone who lives next door, when a person is having a meltdown, you probably experience a mixture of responses too.
There could be an urge to get away (self-protection), to resist the meltdown (self-protection) and also to soothe or fix the situation for the person (help).
Above all else, you probably don’t want to say or do something that will further provoke the other person to an even more heightened emotional state.
Here are 3 ways that you can truly help…
#1: Don’t shut down.
One self-protection reaction to another person’s meltdown– that often happens instantly and subconsciously– is to shut down and “leave.”
This might be a reaction that you’ve unknowingly been practicing for quite awhile. It is the flight aspect of the well-known “fight or flight” responses to stress that just about every living animal (including humans) experiences from time to time.
It is understandable and one might say it’s even natural for any of us to shut down or literally leave when we are in the midst of someone else’s exasperation or overwhelm.
But, it isn’t a way to help.
Of course, if you literally feel in danger, either physically or emotionally, it is wise to give the person who is melting down a lot of space.
If the person has asked you to leave him or her alone, it’s advisable to respect those wishes.
But, many times, it’s not easy, desirable or even possible to get out of that melting down space. On those occasions, your first response needs to be directed inward.
Notice your urge to flee, leave or shut down. Take a deep breath and ask yourself what would help you feel safer at this moment.
Give yourself as much a feeling of safety and soothing as you can. Know that you can’t be any help to this other person until you care for your own needs and address your own emotions.
#2: Don’t take it on.
Another side-effect of trying to help someone who is having a meltdown is that you might take on whatever is upsetting the other person.
If this person is outraged about some injustice or is distraught and feeling victimized, it’s challenging not to “go there” and, on some level, join in with whatever this person is emoting about.
Perhaps you feel triggered by the situation you are witnessing and reminded of a similar experience in your own life– or a fear that you carry around. As the meltdown progresses, you can end up feeling vulnerable to the same kind of injustice, “bad luck” or victimization that the other person perceives has happened to him or her.
When you take on another person’s angst, you most certainly cannot help him or her. Energetically, you will only add to whatever is unsettling and disturbing him or her.
Instead, it’s vital that you pay attention to your own thoughts. Even as you witness the tears, shouts or whatever it is that’s coming from the melting down person, listen to what you are thinking.
If memories of a time when you were in a similar situation pop up for you, notice them. If you begin to worry that this kind of thing will happen to you in the future, notice it.
Notice it too if you start to feel somehow responsible for how this other person is feeling and reacting.
When you recognize that you are taking on this other person’s experience, pause. Point out to yourself that you are not this other person.
Yes, there are probably lessons you can learn from what’s going on in your midst and, yes, there may even be similarities between what you and this other person have experienced. But, you are in a different place right now from what you are seeing and hearing about.
When you learn how to differentiate like this, you can more effectively listen to what the person who is melting down needs and then respond as best as you can.
#3: Hold space.
There is a practice called “holding space” that can be very useful when someone in your life seems to be overwrought and maybe even out of control.
When you hold space for someone, you first calm yourself and come into your own center. Staying as open as possible and differentiating between yourself the other person– as described above– are both important to this practice.
Breathe deeply and slowly. You can start out by doing this for awhile. It’s not necessary for you to say or even do anything more than breathe and stay connected in with yourself.
Stand or sit with your arms loose at your sides; you can turn your palms up and slightly in the direction of the other person if you choose.
Once you feel a certain stability and relative quiet within, imagine that sense of calm extending out to the person who is having a meltdown. You can visualize love, well-being, comfort, safety, ease (or whatever seems appropriate to you) surrounding this person.
When you hold space, you are helping in a very powerful way– this may not be obvious to or even known by the other person. You are creating a safe bubble or place within which the other person can feel truly supported and encouraged to return to his or her center.