Reactivity can show up as being easily triggered into feeling overwhelmed, angry, out of control or shut down. If someone says something you don’t like, you may get wounded, defensive or angry very quickly. People may find it difficult to talk with you about their upsets or their disagreements because they fear you will become too upset or intense. If the volatile one is a parent, children will learn to walk on eggshells around that parent because his/her emotional volatility is too scary for them. Not surprisingly, spouses walk on eggshells for the same reasons.
Being highly reactive sets people up to struggle in their relationships. Their reactivity becomes like a mine field for others to constantly try to manage. As a result, loved ones pretend that everything is all right. They act as though life is fine and they are frequently trying to read the pulse of the reactive family member to see whether or not if s/he is going to blow up. Everyday conflict becomes seemingly impossible to manage, due to the reactivity risk. Issues go underground and unresolved—well, at least the issues of everyone else except the person who is reactive. The person who struggles with reactivity is often talking about, complaining about and yelling about their issues. No one else in the home is given the space or the safety, however, to be able to discuss their own upsets—especially if those upsets are with the family member who is reactive.
As you can imagine, this dynamic sets families up for disaster. It teaches children to either avoid conflict or become so reactive to it that they learn to force others to duck from it. Marriages are often in turmoil and, in essence, the most volatile and unstable person in the home is running the home. The reactive person runs the show because no one else dares to call out this dynamic for fear it will escalate. The person who struggles with reactivity, therefore, seldom sees the extent of their issues because no one challenges them in any real way. Consequently, the reactivity continues, the wedges between spouses and parent and child widen, and the chaotic nature of the home escalates.
Reactivity is a relationship showstopper. It harms relationships, sabotages jobs and can alter lives if not kept in check. If you struggle with being reactive, get help—for your sake as well as the sake of your family. Being emotionally volatile does not feel good to the person who is out of control any more than it does to those around him/her. Your reactivity is making your life more difficult—love yourself enough to take this toxicity out of your life by seeking professional help.
If a loved one, on the other hand, is the one who struggles with reactivity, set clear limits with compassion and confidence and do NOT walk on eggshells. Set limits, have conversations, be clear about your expectations and follow through with any limits you set. Be sure to not become emotionally or physically reactive in response to their reactivity. In addition, seek help yourself. Living with someone who does not emotionally regulate him/herself is a very difficult journey—seek support.
Challenge: If you struggle with emotional reactivity, do not downplay it, justify it or rationalize it. Allow yourself to see the damage it causes to you and those around you. Seek help to change it. If you are struggling the orbit of a loved one with reactivity, seek help yourself to learn how to set limits and not become reactive yourself.