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Dealing with Moody People

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

7 tips to help you survive the ebbs, flows, and tsunamis of other people's moods

Moodiness is natural - we can all be out of sorts, pissed off, hormoanal (not a misspelling), down/up, or just good old-fashioned cranky.

Some people even profess to being attracted to moody types (unpredictability can be interesting), but if you're over thirty (chronologically or emotionally), then moodiness in others has probably lost its appeal.

What is attractive is substance in a person and variation: playfulness, intelligence, humour, artiness, talents, individuality, and diverse interests. Multi-facetness is, to me at least, more appealing. Constant moodiness quickly becomes wearisome. Those who romanticize moodiness probably don't have to live with it.

"But hold on an unsympathetic anti-zeitgeist moment here. Being moody isn't something those afflicted with moods choose, so stop abusing them, Mark!" Okay, relax already; let me justify my ideas (blimey!).

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Making allowances for moodiness

The teenage years are a classic time for moodiness. Because of youth and wayward hormones, the teen may not have learned to manage their emotions and, to be fair, the prefrontal lobes of the brain (which, in part, govern self-control and mood management) don't stop physically developing until around age 21 - at which time the young adult (we're hoping) becomes better at bigger picture thinking and impulse control (1).

A moody person may be going through a difficult stage in their lives; they may be exhausted, ill, chronically worried, or lacking what they need in terms of love, sleep, challenge, or security. Such people need to be listened to, supported, and cared for; and certainly clinical depression and other 'mood disorders' will entail mood extremes and fluctuations.

But there is another type of moodiness; that of the bully, who will use their moods to intimidate and manipulate. It's this aspect of moodiness that I want to look at here.

Moodiness as mean machine

People may be moody because their life, the way they are leading it, isn't meeting their emotional needs adequately - producing, as a side effect, increased moodiness. Perhaps they are not usually moody, so it's obvious they need help (although whatever the cause of moodiness, you may still need to protect yourself and deal with it).

The moody manipulator is different. If you observe them, they're more likely to be overly self-referential generally. Other people figure in as far as they can be used to meet the needs of the moody one. They may have learned (whether that learning is registered consciously or not) that emotional incontinence gives them 'benefits'.

Grabbing the spotlight

Habitually moody people routinely prioritize their own feelings over and above your or my feelings. If, heaven forbid, we are ever moody, they may not be able to stand it.

Others find themselves worrying about what so-and-so will think. This emotional non-sharing (unconcern with how you feel and over-concern with how they feel) is a kind of greed (no matter how you dress it up).

Just being understanding or just listening may help the moody person (if their mood isn't unconsciously aligned with controlling others), but if they are gaining something (attention, influence, power, status) from being moody, then they won't stop until:

  • Either moodiness no longer confers these 'benefits' or...
  • They start to meet these needs in more mature ways.

I'm a firm believer that moods (like holiday photos) should not be inflicted on one work colleague by another or by a professional onto customers. Part of professionalism is mood management.

I realize all this may sound judgemental, but I have judgement and I can't help but use it sometimes. So how can you best manage the fallout form other people's moodiness?

1) Consider your options

If you know someone who always seems to have to dictate the emotional atmosphere, then be clear: they are a dictator. Another term for dictator is bully. If your empathy, patience, advice, and general attention-giving doesn't seem to help them and you are suffering because of their moodiness (and they don't seem to care about that), then consider carefully: Do you need this person in your life?

A friendship is reciprocal; it should be give and take - but not in the sense that you're always giving and they're always taking. If you have to have them in your life for whatever reason, then consider the following:

2) Don't play their games

If we're not careful, the moody person can start to get preferential treatment because, well, it just seems easier to 'smooth things over' for them. However, short-term ease equals long-term hassle. Remember: people won't change if they are being 'rewarded' for not changing.

Decide now not to be unduly influenced; stop tiptoeing around this person or making special allowances.

One woman who came for therapy would lament that a co-worker would tell drawn-out stories about her weekend when she was in the mood, but would often look bored or miserable when other people began to talk about what they'd been doing.

My client was finding that she had stopped talking about herself at all to this woman and had basically become "rent-an-ear". I suggested that what I was about to suggest may seem counter-intuitive, but that there was method in my madness.

3) Don't reward moodiness

"Next Monday, after she has told you all about her weekend, I want you to talk about yours, no matter how she seems when you speak."

My client did this for several weeks. At first, the other woman sighed, looked bored, irritated ("at one point I even thought she was going to collapse onto the floor"); but eventually, all that stopped and she even started to listen respectfully. Being moody can confer 'benefits' and incentives, but only if those around the moody person let it.

Reflect for a moment: just what, do you suspect, is this person getting from acting out? All behaviour is purposeful. Is it a bigger share of the attention pie? Is it getting out of work? Is it simply control of others for its own sake?

One woman told me how her middle-aged mother would always become suddenly down in mood whenever her daughter was going away. The daughter would then take her mother with her (even on her honeymoon!).

By not letting this woman's moodiness influence her at work, my client blocked the moodiness from 'working', at least in that context, and made it a redundant force.

4) Just ask

Some moody people may use anger as a way of influencing you. See my article on How to Control Your Anger for what I mean.

Or they may clam up and not speak or suddenly start speaking very negatively about something dear to you. One day, good cop; the next, bad - shifting sands and you wondering where you stand. We all fluctuate a bit, but these moody types may do it minute by minute and if you peek at what is happening (rather than just reflect on how you feel about what's happening), the moods will be purposeful as regards influencing other people.

But if ever you display moodiness, they may be surprised - even outraged - you've trespassed onto their behavioural territory.

Not mentioning someone's mood can be paramount to being sucked into their games. Who says it's an unwritten rule that their behaviour go unchallenged? Sometimes actually challenging someone's mood may get them to observe what they themselves are doing.

  • "I've noticed you keep snapping. Is something upsetting you?"
  • "I think you look bored. Do you think what I'm saying is tedious?"
  • "I think your irritability is spoiling the morale in the office this morning."

These kinds of statements can:

  • Be disarming if someone truly does use their moodiness as a means of social coercion.
  • Pave the way for letting you try to help them if they genuinely do have problems.

Even if they say: "What do you mean?" and deny it, now their moodiness is becoming an issue in itself rather than just a device to get want they want.

5) Practical sympathy

I am cursed with an empathetic nature and have had to consciously fight against it sometimes. Why? Because of the principle of cruelty in the pursuit of genuine kindness.

Some people are genuinely distressed, depressed, psychotic even; but we still need to separate that out from how they behave toward others. If we let people get away with anything because they are distressed, going through a divorce, clinically depressed, even then we are making it too tempting for them to start unconsciously using their 'distress label' as a means to an end.

I used to work with severely psychotic patients. One day I accompanied Winnie (a diagnosed schizophrenic) 'off-campus' into town. I'd never challenged her outbursts or rudeness before (I don't think anyone had) - well, she was clinically crazy, wasn't she? She "couldn't help it". Really? On this occasion, amidst her cursing at me and bemused passers by, I finally turned to Winnie and said:

"Stop cursing at people and stop being rude to me! I know you're better than that!"

She looked shocked; then, perfectly rationally, she apologized and started to be much pleasanter toward me, at least. We don't 'help' anyone by making allowances for everything they do because they have been labelled in some way.

There are plenty of depressed people who don't scream at others and many psychotics are pleasant and courteous. Sometimes we act with more genuine sympathy when we set boundaries. Making too many allowances is akin to discrimination.

6) Don't take it personally - it's them, not you

"My boss is like the weather!"

"Wet and windy?"

"No, I mean always changing! One day he's Mr Charming, the next he's slamming doors and not speaking to anyone. And I'm racking my brains figuring out what I've done wrong!"

We value niceness from a moody person more because of its scarcity, but no one needs to be grovelling, grateful for crumbs of decency on the rare occasions they appear.

In the UK, if we let the weather affect us too much, we don't do anything. And who takes personal responsibility for the weather? Even if you had "done something wrong", that would be a separate issue from them blowing a tantrum.

Moody people may work through implication. It's implied that somehow you've done something wrong. And because the guilt button is quite large on many of us, even the implication that we might have done something wrong can knock our confidence and unsettle. By putting Tip 4 into practice, you short-circuit implication strategies.

7) Take time out for yourself

If you live or work with an exceptionally moody person, then make sure you get time out to relax, have fun, rest, and recuperate away from them if necessary. Whatever the cause of moodiness, it is draining for others and you may be a significant other.

Having to be the 'rational adult' all the time can be exhausting; and if you're not careful, you can start to feel as moody as they are. And I stress again: even the most depressed person (and even the most severely psychotic people I've known) can still know that other people have needs as well.

Lastly, remember that everything changes - the moodiness of adolescence can progress to the serenity that comes from self-mastery. And if you are the moody one, remember that what feels permanent at the time never is.


  1. See: The Prefrontal Cortex: Executive and Cognitive Functions by A. C. Roberts (1998).
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Dealing with Difficult People