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How to Handle a Crazymaker

4 keys to keep from losing it when they start playing games.

A mother gave her son two ties for an upcoming family occasion. She then got mad at him when he showed up at the party wearing one of them. She wanted him to wear the other one.

Years later after the son had grown up and married, he presented his wife with two dresses for their anniversary dinner. He then got upset with her for wearing the wrong dress of the two.

A few years later, after the couple had a daughter, his wife accused the daughter of hugging the wrong parent first—even if the little girl switched whom she hugged each time.

Crazy-makers come in all shapes and sizes—and can have good and bad intentions. Some know they are being manipulative and oppressive. Others haven’t got a clue. Some engage in their tactics consistently. Others provide intermittent surprise attacks. The challenge is to recognize the behavior, assess if it’s from a healthy or unhealthy place, and then employ the proper strategies to stay sane and empower yourself.

Crazymaking is when a person sets you up to lose, as in the examples above: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You’re put in lose-lose situations, but too many games are being played for you to reason yourself out of it. There is no rhyme, reason, or emotional understanding with a crazy-maker. Worse, when the behavior is stealthy and confusing, it becomes easy to feel crazy. It feels like you’re caught in a whirlwind of chaos, with the life force being sucked from you as you are manipulated with nonstop crazy-making tactics. 

The Top 3 Crazy-maker Types

Narcissists. The granddaddy of all crazy-makers. Narcissists cannot empathize with anyone, meaning they cannot relate to your feelings. They only feel their own wants and needs. They are emotionally stunted, like a perpetually demanding two-year-old. It is always about them. However, they can be extremely charming and charismatic, as they have learned how to be the greatest salespeople to get their needs met. They can charm and mimic compassion for brief moments in order to get their needs satisfied. They expect only the best and can be the most materialistic—demanding trophy-relationships, endless objects of success, only well-known acquaintances, top-notch services, lavish vacations, etc. They have disdain for emotions in others and often think even less of people close to them. They try to control everyone around them and will use every available tactic to gain control. Many high-ranking executives are narcissists and consequently tend to create a narcissistic culture in their company or division.

Drama-cultivators. Whether histrionic or borderline or a version of other similar diagnosable personalities, the drama-cultivator is best known for their perpetual crises. They are like Chicken Little screaming “The sky is falling!” but they expect you to fix it. Now—and on their terms. Some people do experience an excess of rough times (and it’s true that a lot of crises can happen in one burst), but the drama-cultivator has an overabundance of crises because, for them, everything is a crisis. They expend their energy and yours responding to crises. They cannot empathize with others because they are too wrapped up in their chaos. Yet, they need you and your energy and don’t want you to leave them, so they go to great lengths to get and keep your attention. Like a wounded child, they also swing from loving and supporting you to getting angry and detesting you. Their moods and responses are inconsistent and dealing with them feels like you are walking in a field of landmines.

Stealth-bombers. They look like roses compared to the narcissist and drama-cultivator, but beware their sharp thorns. These highly dependent people try to please you, but the nice things they do have a cost. They are the martyr that keeps score. Like a stealth bomber, just when you think everything is okay, they get you. Their modus operandi is to sabotage you while they look innocent. For instance, they will commit to doing something when they really don’t want to do it and then consistently bail out at the last minute. Or they’ll conveniently forget. Perhaps they’ll run late and miss the deadline. Everyone has these experiences now and again, but stealth-bombers do it all the time and they get you to feel guilty about it. They will make up excuses with the most ambiguous details, then sulk and act like a victim if you get upset. They will conveniently lose items, forget dates, miss deadlines, ruin plans, and then become sad and withdrawn because they’ve tried so hard.

4 Common Crazy-maker Tactics

It is imperative to know if you’re dealing with a crazy-maker in the first place. However, there's a tendency to be a little blind to the possibility if the person is a loved one or someone close. We end up taking that person’s behavior personally, and believing that the crazy-maker in our life could change if they wanted to. We also expect the crazy-maker to play by the same communication and etiquette “rules” as everyone else. But they can’t. Crazy-makers don't play by the same rules as you. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches and energy if you realize this now and stop trying to make the crazy-maker in your life dance to your song.

1. The Double-Bind. Double-binds are negative messages disguised in a positive message or gesture. The double-bind sets you up to lose, as in the example above with the mother and the two ties. It can also be as subtle as a person giving a scolding look while saying, “I love you.” The insult about choosing the wrong tie is cloaked in the gift of the tie. The son is trapped because if he complains, the mother can say he doesn’t appreciate the gift. The “I love you” is coupled with an angry look, so one is prevented from addressing the look because the counter-argument might be, “But I said I love you." Double-binds happen all of the time. Start paying attention and you’ll be appalled by the frequency. Crazy-makers employ this tactic most often.

2. Inconsistent praise. Crazy-makers are superior at giving inconsistent praise. They are all adept at keeping you on your toes and getting you to beg for their praise. There’s a scientific explanation for it: Inconsistent praise tends to elicit desired behavior the most. Numerous animal researchers have discovered that the best way to train an animal is with an inconsistent reward. This is why gambling can be so addictive—it provides an inconsistent reward. We literally get hooked. Crazy-makers have figured this out and provide the people around them with inconsistent praise. Sometimes they are just so loving, present, or flattering that it feels good. Then it’s gone. Some people get hooked and continue to put up with crazy-making behavior because they are waiting for the payoff—the praise. In fact, a crazy-maker’s praise probably does feel better to you than praise from a person who is consistent with it. But, like gambling, it can be an addictive high that also has a queasy, unsettling feeling to it—along with a high cost.

3. Selective memory. We all have selective memories, but crazy-makers exceptionally so. They conveniently forget any problems you’ve had with them when they want something from you. Then they throw every wrong you’ve ever done in your face when they are upset with you. Again, the key is that it’s inconsistent. You never know what your review will be like because it depends on their mood. You know that the only thing you can depend on with a crazy-maker is that you can’t depend on consistency. They will hold a grudge but expect you to forget any disruptions. They will manipulate like crazy and use their selective memory as ammunition.

4. Impossible to empathize. Crazy-makers cannot empathize. They will simply not be able to understand your feelings or situation. They might try to give you a sense that they understand, but they can’t sit with it very long and generally turn the conversation back onto their feelings or situation. This is an important point: Empathy is a developmental trait. A child at age 4 begins to play with others in a more cooperative fashion. Prior to that, if they are with other children, they are still most likely playing in an individual fashion (serial play). That’s normal because they haven’t developmentally learned to share and take turns. When such skills kick in, empathy does as well. Typically, a crazy-maker has not developed empathy, so they are more like a two-year-old emotionally. Knowing this is critical to protecting yourself in a power struggle.

Keeping strong boundaries is the key to dealing with a crazy-maker.

4 Strategies for Dealing With a Crazy-Maker

  1. Take an observer's point of view. There’s something about detaching and seeing a crazy-maker from an observer point of view that helps you not get entangled in their mess. It’s almost like listening to someone speaking a different language. All of a sudden, their attacks seem silly and confirm to you that they are dancing to a different tune. Letting go can be the biggest power struggle deflator of all. It can also save your sanity because you can stop yourself from engaging in a needless battle—or feeling the sting of a double-bind.
  2. Maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. Sometimes we attract crazy-makers in our life because they reflect our own lack of self-worth. We let bullies bully us because we somehow feel we deserve it on some level. We teach people how to treat us and often reinforce crazy-making behavior in our lives through accepting it. Don’t. Start telling yourself you are worth more. You can’t really ask for something from somebody else if you aren’t giving it to yourself first. So, love and respect yourself. Be gentle with yourself—especially when dealing with a crazy-maker. As proof, notice if the crazy-maker in your life treats other people better than you. Pay attention and notice if those people exude a higher sense of self-worth. That might be a clue to improve your own self-worth through positive self-talk and care.
  3. Keep a healthy distance. Do you really have to have the crazy-maker in your life, or can you just keep a healthy distance? Are you in a trap of believing that you will be worth more if the crazy-maker finally treats you better? They probably won’t, so don’t be afraid to move on. Narcissists need an audience; drama-cultivators require others to maintain drama; and stealth-bombers are dependent. In other words, you are the dance partner in their crazy-making dance and you can choose to stop dancing with them. There are other jobs and other friends that are healthy. If it’s a relative, you can still keep a healthy distance. Keep visits short and reward yourself afterward with nurturing care and positive self-talk.
  4. Cultivate internal validation. Sometimes people won’t play fair. They’ll use crazy-making tactics and engage in power struggles to feel better about themselves. You can play into it and escalate the battle or you can take the higher road. Taking the higher road includes finding internal strength. Some refer to it as spirituality. Some feel it from the heart. It’s that endless supply inside that rejuvenates you and causes people to become resilient in the face of the most challenging adversity. It is the source of hope. Tapping into it is proof that you’ve developed a good boundary. People cannot drain your energy field because it’s directly tied into the abundant source of courage, hope and love. You don’t have boundary leaks because you are no longer dependent on external validation. Fear is replaced with faith that the source of hope is abundant inside. Your heart is not hardened and your mind is not cynical. You are fully adaptable to change and at peace. In short, you are the change you want to see and you are modeling it for the world.

Kimberly Key is past division president of the American Counseling Association and author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle.

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