The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
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
a message...AdJim@aol.com writes:
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?
Highly Sensitive People website can be viewed at:
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.
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.
Salvatore Maddi, a psychologist, formerly of U. Chicago, posed these motivations for creative
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
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
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.
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
I will say that they (HSP) do sometimes have really good zingers and comebacks in
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
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.
again for being a catalyst.
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
Power Struggles vs. Powerful Strategies -- Part I
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 email@example.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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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."
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"
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or