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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

JAN 03

Main Essay

An exchange with a reader on the dynamics of Highly Sensitive people leads to this month's main essay, including essays on defusing power struggles and a 5-step model for constructive confrontation.

Highly Sensitive People and the Art of Confrontation

In a message...AdJim@aol.com writes:

Hi Mark:

I discussed the recurring theme of "Anger" that I hear over and over again with HSP (Highly Sensitive People) with A. and she mentioned that she thought the reason was because since Highly Sensitive People process incoming information so deeply, they get hurt very deeply and in turn get very angry because they feel they've been hurt so badly.

Does that sound about right and make sense to you?

The Highly Sensitive People website can be viewed at:

Hi Jim,

Thanks for the kind words.  I think you want to be a bit more differentiated here:  HSPs process info deeply, but not all kinds of info at the same depth, I suspect.  A highly sensitive visual person will not react as quickly to certain auditory info as I would, I believe and v.v.  And certain (early) life experiences will also condition whether an HSP is more sensitive to (and likely to interpret events as) humiliation, abandonment, fear of being abused, etc.  Certain issues I will experience a mild rebuff, other issues profound rejection, and others the reverse.

But I do agree that the depth of hurt influences the intensity of anger.  And surely people become enraged not just when they are so hurt but, also, to scare people away so others won't get close to their HSP vulnerability.  Then again, if anger is a frequent defensive weapon, especially, when effective, through trial and error and reward as well as habituation it can become a rapid response of choice.  The best defense is becoming offensive, that is, the HSP now uses anger either to intimidate or to widen his defensive perimeter, keeping meaningful interaction and dialogue at bay; keeping him momentarily safe but frequently vigilant.

Also, I think HSP often do appreciate or are compelled to deal with a more complex array of info in many facets of life.  I know I get worked up when someone is diminishing my world or the world's more complex, non-black vs. white reality.  Sometimes it may reflect past hurt; other times just a sense of injustice and a need to breathe less dense or factually polluted air.

Actually Salvatore Maddi, a psychologist, formerly of U. Chicago, posed these motivations for creative individuals:

Psychoanalytic:  past conflicts and pain begin to thaw as the artist reaches more adult awareness and is compelled to transform the childhood pain into adult expression and form

Rebellious:  creative individual protests mind and soul numbing bureaucracy; a bureaucracy that impedes his or her more complex reality and a richer way of designing a response

Existential:  When the artist has reached such a point of alienation and sufficient self-definition, he or she must leave normal or traditional reality (e.g., a traditional job or convenient career path) and create his own world.

And, sure, sometimes these are all present.  I guess, some kind of pain, hurt, or profound frustration and anger are always present.  And, surely, other motives for HSPs are to discover/design truth and beauty.  Whatever, the motivation, the challenge is to transform the hurt, the angst, the anger into some pain transcending process, that helps the HSP integrate the hurt and anger and the painful experience into an enlightening and creative outcome.  Pain transcended in art or enlightening acts is its own reward and reaffirms the HSP's capacity for resilience and rejuvenation.  It's good for that sensitive ego and it's fun!  Such a process definitely helps us...Practice Safe Stress!


Hi Mark: Thanks for your reflections on hurt and anger, very interesting thoughts.  And hopefully a good subject for the makings of a good article!  Hope you'll share it if it in deed becomes an article.

It seems with Amy and other HSP I've seen get angry, there is very little calculation (of using it as an offense or defense, etc.) it seems they get hurt and their feelings take over and their feelings becomes their reality, with little or no rationality or logic to it.  That's been my experience anyway.

I will say that they (HSP) do sometimes have really good zingers and comebacks in
situations, because they have thought about it or even sometimes obsessed about
what was said and they really have thought through as to what a really good "cutting"
and maybe hurtful retaliatory comment or "come back" would be.


I think both points are well taken, that is, they may not use rage as an intimidating weapon, instead using a hostile barb.

Here are a few articles you may want to read and/or share with Amy.  Learning how to use better "I" messages is vital for the HS/HR (Hot Reactor) person.  That is, instead of just going into angry -- defensive (self-justifying) or offensive (blaming, "You" messages) mode, it's more effective and less provocative to start off by saying, with feeling:  "I didn't like what you just said" or "I'm angry right now."  Having blown off some steam, a blowup doesn't have to follow.  Then the individual may add (continuing with an "I" message):  "Here's why I'm angry..."  Or, the person can declare:  "I'm too angry or upset or hurt to continue right now.  I need (or "I believe we need a time out, to sort out my thoughts and feelings.  Let's try to talk again in a half hour, after dinner, etc.").  See below articles for using "I" messages to defuse conflict and express healthy anger.

Thanks again for being a catalyst.


The Stress Doc illustrates how anger can be constructive or destructive depending on whether aggressive energy and motives are acknowledged and channeled or denied and projected.  Role play examples illustrate the difference between Assertive "I" Messages and Blaming "You"s and offer (mostly useful) strategies for disarming dysfunctional power struggles.

Alarming "You"s or Disarming "I"s: 
Power Struggles vs. Powerful Strategies -- Part I

A challenging aspect of the anger skills component of my "Practicing Safe Stress" program is helping participants realize that "Assertion" is one of "The Four Faces of Anger," a model based on whether anger expression is "Constructive" or "Destructive" and "Purposeful" or "Spontaneous."  (If interested, email stressdoc@aol.com for my Four Faces Model.)  The difficulty for many in linking assertion and anger stems from two erroneous beliefs:  a) assertion is too rational or intellectual to convey real anger and b) anger has to be loud, emotional and potentially explosive.  Actually, when people don't genuinely acknowledge the aggressive component of their assertive expression, healthy anger is masked and distorted.  The result is often judgmental criticism, condescending sarcasm or, even, passive-aggressive retaliation.  In other words, an assertive intention regresses into a hostile defense or intimidation.  And I frequently see this reactive transformation with the use of blaming "You"s over self-acknowledging, responsibility shouldering "I" messages. 

Now be honest, under enough stress and frustration, aren't you occasionally a "blameaholic"?  What are some of the more common, judgmental "You" messages or "acc-you-sations?  How about, "It's your fault,"  "You make me sick,"  "You made me do it," "You drive me crazy,"  "You screwed up" (only one time, of course not…"You always screw up" or "You never do it right"), "You shouldn't think (or feel) that way," "You're too sensitive, too moody."  And my all time obnoxious "You" message…"You really disappointed me!," with the guilt toxin just dripping from self-righteous lips as it surreptitiously seeps deep into the target's psyche.   And the consistent use of abrasive "You" attacks has predictable consequences:  such provocative communication invariably triggers an overt or covert defensive reaction, withdrawal, intimidation and/or interpersonal power struggles.

Power Struggle Exercise

In my workshops, I bring out this provocative "you" dynamic through a playful yet powerful exercise called, "You Can't Make Me!"  People pair off, decide who's Person A, who's Person B.  (It has nothing to do with being Type A or Type B.)  I then ask participants to try to imagine one person with whom there is or there recently has been some interpersonal tension or conflict; someone who has you clenching your jaws at night or plotting strategy at 3 am.  (Of course, a frequent rejoinder is, "You mean I have to choose just one person!")  I encourage participants to think of the conflict as a power struggle issue.  And when asked to eyeball their opposite number (actually, opposite letter) a tension in the air begins to build.  People get seriously focused or start to squirm.  Then come the instructions:  Person A declares, "You Can't Make Me!"  Person B counters with, "Oh Yes I Can (make you)."  Clearly it's a clash of polar "You" messages.  The antagonists are to verbal volley for about ten seconds.  They can be loud and abrasive, hostile, whiny or passive-aggressive.  The only limit:  "You can't get out of your chair."

Body language is encouraged.  And then, after a few back and forths, they can reach closure, by saying whatever they'd really like to say to their imagined foe.  (X-rated language is discouraged.)  However, the x-rated warning may not be sufficient.  Alas, this exercise does pose a risk, especially with the wrong audience.  Let me illustrate.

Unbeknownst to me, just before show time, I received word that my West Virginia mountain health spa audience was in their third day of a smoking cessation program.  (Talk about, "The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Manic.")  To harness some of the off the mountain wall energy, I quickly had participants pair off for the above-mentioned "You Can't Make Me" role-play.  Perhaps this was not my most scintillating leadership moment.  You see, with one particular male-female dyad, provocative tensions were escalating rapidly.  Miss A apparently perceived a little too much sexual intonation into Mr. B's, "Oh, yes I can! (make you)"  Before I could intervene Miss A picks up a glass of ice water and pours it into Mr. B's lap.  Ouch.  That's one way of going cold turkey (if not being one).  Trust me, this guy was smoke free for the rest of the week.

This role interaction while intense is usually not so dramatic.  A few participants just laugh - some feel the exercise artificial or absurd.  Others laugh nervously at the prospect of projecting or receiving raw aggression.  The decibel level rise in the room (usually to an ambiance of barely controlled chaos) speaks volumes about the group's involvement with the exercise.  Considering the fabricated nature of the role play, why do so many fairly quickly put on their game face and register power struggle emotions and expressions?  I've come up with three "C" factors:

1)  Who is in "Control"? This relates to the parent-child, authority dynamic; who sets the physical and emotional boundaries, for example, regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior,
2)  The second "C"-word is also a family relationship dynamic -- sibling rivalry.  The key word is "Competition" - who's better, who is the favorite and, finally,
3)  The dynamic of "Culture" - varying role prescriptions and expectations, differences and misunderstandings of verbal and non-verbal meaning and social protocol.

While all three "C"s can fuel intense conflict and power clashes, I suspect the most universal trigger is the issue of "Control."  Why?  Wrestle with this question:  When do profound issues of control first surface in families?...Certainly by toilet training.  The reality is we all have a history of personal and interpersonal control issues along with autonomy-intimacy boundary struggles no matter how nice or civilized, rebellious or intimidated, mature or repressed we have become.

Stress Doc's Disarming Demonstration

So how does one resist the invitation to the power dance, especially a dysfunctional struggle; how does one transcend a potential vicious cycle of interaction?  By way of illustration, let's return to the "You Can't Make Me" scenario.  As part of the post-role play, group reflection on the exercise segment, I select a sturdy looking audience member and ask him or her to take my offering of an invisible rope.  (I learned a not soon to be forgotten lesson:  if you select a female, don't ever refer to her as "a big woman."  Believe me, "Never again!")  As the participant gazes at me quizzically, holding the other end of the imaginary rope, I challenge my opposite to, "Pull hard; come on, give it a good pull"  The public nature of the challenge invariably has my unwitting antagonist grimacing, straining and pulling intently.  And just as it seems they are about to overpower me, to win this virtual-physical contest of wills and won'ts…I pose the unexpected:  "What happens if I decide to 'drop the rope'?"  The tension is over.  My partner in conceptual crime usually grins sheepishly or mimes falling over.  The audience breaks out in "aha" smiles if not "ha-ha" laughter.  Instead of proving who can pull harder in some dysfunctional, ego-driven contest, one party purposefully lets go of the self-defeating game, steps outside the predictable boundary lines by dropping the rope.  It's a sign of maturity, not of wimpiness.

To clinch the strategic concept another question follows:  "How do you drop the rope in the "You Can't Make Me/Oh Yes I Can (make you)" Exercise?  Now it's time to integrate the art and skill of letting go and employing "I" message communication.  But first, let me acknowledge that using "I" messages effectively require some doing.  I recall a supervisor in a team building workshop asking:  "Is this an example of an "I" message?…'I think you're wrong!'"  No, Ms. P that's not an "I" message; that's a sneaky, blaming "You" message.  An "I" message response might be:  "I disagree," "Here's what I know or what I believe," "Here's how I see it" or, even "My data says otherwise."

Okay, back to the role-play.  How's this for a reply to the testy, win-lose "You can't make me"?  "Whether I can or can't make you, that's not where I'm coming from.  I need your help.  If I'm bugging you or something's bugging you, let's talk about it.  If we're going to get the project done (meet our goal, the deadline, etc.) we need to be on the same page; we need to pull together, not be pulling apart."

Drop the rope; not right or wrong.  And another Stress Doc immunization-aphormation that protects against or disentangles enmeshed egos and facilitates letting go comes to mind:  Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty!  And, of course, when dealing with an incorrigible dominance-submission egotist, find solace in the words of 20th c. French novelist, Andre Gide:  One must allow others to be right…It consoles them for not being anything else.  Words for…Practicing Safe Stress!

Stay tuned for Part II of this power struggle treatise.

Building on the role of "You" vs "I" messages in power struggles in Part I, the Stress Doc now illustrates the passion and strategic purposefulness of a "higher power" response in the face of provocation.  He closes with a five-step confrontation that's even more than a good IDEA.

Transforming Aggression with Higher Power "I"s:  Part II

Part I of this two-part series explored how anger can be constructive or destructive depending on whether aggressive energy and motives are acknowledged and channeled or denied and projected.  A role play example illustrated the difference between Assertive "I" Messages and Blaming "You"s.  In addition, a "drop the rope" strategy was provided for tactfully disarming dysfunctional power struggles.  However, "I" messages don't just gracefully disarm or mollify an antagonist.  When delivered with passion and purpose, strategic "I"s can, in "tongue f
ooey"-like fashion, use hurtful or aggressive energy to unbalance an antagonist.  You might even knock an adversary off their high horse or hostile path.  Here's an instructive tale.

Disarm Hostility with Passionate Honesty

Years back, I was consulting with the supervisory staff of the Department of Human Services of a rural Maryland County.  Because of the distance, the workshops were held monthly.  The previous month, a male supervisor had confronted, somewhat pointedly, a female colleague during a drawing exercise.  I belatedly realized we had not fully processed the engagement and decided to revisit the encounter.  At the following meeting, the male supervisor, in charge of case management, expressed appreciation when I acknowledged my sense of "unfinished business."  He recognized that his actions could have been construed as an attack and he apologized.

The female supervisor, working in accounting, after perfunctorily acknowledging the apology, did not want to discuss the issue further.  She was more concerned about the lack of clear communication and insufficient cooperation with her supervisory colleagues and their staff.  Forms and reports were not being completed in a timely and thorough manner.

We discussed this and other issues, then took a break.  During the recess, I approached the female supervisor.  Realizing that some people prefer not to open up conflicts in a group forum, I again asked if she had any thoughts about the previous drawing exercise encounter or earlier discussion.  Immediately I elicited an incredulous air and jaundiced eye:  "You sure know how to talk things to death, don't you."  Now that's an attacking "You" message.  After recoiling, then recovering from that sudden punch in the psychic gut, I managed a reply:  "I just think clearing the air of unresolved conflict is important."  I reaffirmed her own concern about communication breakdowns and wanting more cooperation from the staff. 

Apparently feeling more like a cornered creature than colleague, now flush with a defensive venomous attitude, this supervisor quickly lashed out her one word stinger:  "Whatever."  Well, you can strike me once, but you're not going to do it a second time without experiencing my anger.  I mean, really, what would you love to do in this situation if you aren't left numb from the toxic encounter?  If you don't shake the person silly, you are ready to expel the "B"-word:  "You witch!"  (I was always better at rhyming than spelling.)

Somehow, my higher power descended.  From a painful grimace sprung an impassioned, "That hurts.  I feel like I've been stabbed in the back!"  Finally, I had her attention.  Having instinctively pushed back, now there was purpose, if not method, to my madness:  "I don't think you realize how powerful a communicator you can be.  But when you shoot out those darts you're pretty intimidating.  You will turn folks off, or scare them off.  Cooperation isn't going to be the first thing on peoples' minds."

In hindsight, I had used an effective confrontation.  I immediately and visually let her know her attacks were not acceptable.  I demonstrated the power of letting go of a "Tough John Wayne or Rambo" persona; I acknowledged feeling hurt.  Her lashing out wasn't just self-protective and dismissive.  Also, I had used an "I" message to spotlight the hostile nature and cutting impact of her words and tone:  "I feel like I've been stabbed in the back."

At the same time, I managed to provide a little ego stroking by acknowledging that she was a powerful communicator.  And, in fact, this somewhat reserved woman was not fully aware of her passive-aggressive and offensive style when dealing with conflict, nor of her potential for intimidation and inflicting pain.  Her modus operandi:  I feel threatened, therefore I'm entitled to react.  (Reaction comes from a threatened place, a place fired by old fears and critical voices; a response comes from your center, a place of integrity, clarity and present-focus.)

I was pretty clean and clear with my anger, using an immediate, graphic and emotion-laden response.  I also explained the consequences of her behavior, even managing to provide some ego-boosting and face-saving observation along with my constructive criticism.  When giving feedback, try to combine the bad news/good news.  And the impact was noticeable.  For the remainder of the workshop, this supervisor was positively engaged with the group and me.

The Doc's 5 Steps for Constructive Confrontation

Let me close this article with a Five Step Approach to Effective "I" Messages using a hypothetical exchange between a supervisor and an employee to illustrate this sequential process.  The Supervisor (S) encounters Employee (E) in the hall.  S. has not been able to get feedback from E. on the status of an important work project.  The scenario raises key communication/confrontation issues as well as followup statements and questions.

I.  Use an "I" Statement, Question or Observation

Begin your exchange with an "I" message:  "I'm concerned,"  "I'm confused," or "I'm frustrated."  Also acceptable as a leading question:  "What the heck is going on?"  (You can say "hell" if your perplexity is truly justified ;-).  But don't use four letter words to intimidate or to exploit a power differential.)  Observational comments can be effective:  "I noticed you broke the pencil.  Are you upset about something?" 

S:  Hey, E., I need to talk with you.  I'm frustrated (or confused; again, depending on the interpersonal context you may need to be more or less tactful). 

D.  Describe the Problem Specifically

S:  I've asked you three times this week for the status of the systems report and I haven't received the report or any response.  What's going on here?

Avoid provocative, judgmental "acc-you-sations":  "Why are you avoiding me?" or "You never get your work in on time."

E.  Explain Your Upset -- Effects and Expectations

a) Effects.  S:  Not having your report, I wasn't able to present the latest data at the branch meeting.  We had to postpone making a decision that is time-sensitive.  ("And you made me look like a fool in front of the other supervisors."  No, resist such language.  That's a blaming "You" message.)

b) Expectations. Express clearly and firmly your needs, desires or expectations to remedy the problematic situation.

S:  We really need the data.  I want to meet tomorrow morning at 9:00 to discuss where you are with the project.  I want us to establish a realistic time line for completion.  

A.  Acknowledge Other and Ask for Other's Perspective

Explore where the other person is coming from; how do they see their workload demands on time and energy, etc.

S:  I know you are working on several important projects concurrently.  Tell me what's on your plate.  Then we'll need to set priorities and upgrade the importance of this branch data project.  If you are having a hard time juggling priorities or if you anticipate a deadline problem, I want to know ahead of time.

Understandably, people often ask why I don't initiate this problem-solving encounter from this more empathic, less assertive, perspective.  It's a good question.  Having lived in Washington, DC these past nine years influences my answer.  Frankly, I see too many folks impatient, under stress, caught up in their own self-importance, who say things like, "I know you've got a lot of stuff on your plate, but can't you get that work on Project B done!"  And it is said less as a question and more with a condemning tone.  This kind of "scarcasm" will only escalate tensions.  When folks are under stress or feeling time-pressured, I'd rather they not cover up their frustration with an intellectualized, pseudo concern.  Use an "I" message to be up front and clear with your concern or upset.  Then, genuinely thank the person for listening to you (and your three "I" message steps.  Remember, it's not easy listening to direct critical feedback). 

Now, having unloaded some steam, you can more cleanly and compassionately acknowledge the other's workload, conflicting priorities, time lines, etc. and, ultimately, give them a chance to be a problem-solving collaborator.  (In addition, this process is effective with a pattern of less than satisfactory work performance.  With documentation and these intervention steps, you can let E. know, in a less emotional and more professional manner, your objective concern and the concrete consequences for continuing problematic behavior.)

S:  I really would like your help in problem-solving.  Where are the obstacles?  From your perspective, what needs to be done next?  Let's also do some longer range planning to anticipate similar bottlejams and to keep us on the same page.  In fact, I'd like to meet once/week until we both are confident you have reasonable control over the various project elements.

L.  Listen and Let Go

And once you've engaged in the first four steps, having cleaned up your inner static, you can do more active and objective listening and can likely let go of any existing anger, hurt or questionnable assumptions.

So, a good IDEA now becomes a communicational IDEAL.  This acronym becomes an interactive process for replacing aggression with assertion by employing "I" messages and eliminating blaming "You"s, allowing clarity to subdue hostility and for realizing that conflict, genuinely and maturely engaged, can turn antagonists into allies.  And, of course, you will also be...Practicing Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, an international speaker, syndicated writer and a "Motivational Humorist" for corporate clients/conferences with the DC Improv Comedy Club. He is also America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ (Keyword:  Stress Doc) The Doc runs his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City DC Stress Chat .  See his multi-award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com Stress Doc homepage (recently cited as workplace resource in a National Public Radio feature on "Bad Bosses").  Email for his monthly newsletter recently showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.