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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

June 2000, No. 1, Sect. 1

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

Table of Contents

Heads Up: Media Exposure, AOL/Digital City Chat and WebMD Q & A: Fortifying the Wounded SELF with Hostile Relatives Shrink Rap: Readers' Submissions: Thoughts... Sect 2: Main Essay: Excessive Arousal - Activation: Phobia-Panic Readers' Submissions: WOW!

Heads Up:

1. Media Exposure: a) Just a little absurdity from the Stress Doc. When you are standing at the checkout line, thumb through this month's issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine, July, page 207 (and it's already on the shelves). In an article titled, "Crisis Control: Cosmo Solves Your Worst Life Woes," (with some most glamorously distraught visuals), look for the Copper-colored Sidebar: "Four Ways to Wallop Your Worries," by Gina Zucker. I provide the top three walloping psychobabble quotes, titled: 1) Use pal as reality check, 2) Watch "The Simpsons" and 3) Sweat it out. And I even said most of what they attributed to me. ;-)

And they did mention the website and my upcoming book, Practice Safe Stress with the Stress Doc (subtitled: "The Art of Managing Stress, Burnout & Depression"), by AdviceZone.com (due out by Labor Day). Please email if interested in more details.

And if you make it to National, Dulles or BWI airports, check out the July issue of the free Washington Flyer magazine. There's a feature on my uncommon online/offline entrepreneurial path with pic. (I'm holding my breath; the photographer went for the humor: for example, me sporting my Shrink Rap paraphernalia - Blues Brother's Hat, black sunglasses and tambourine - while sitting in a lotus position. (Or as lotus as I could get.) Anyway, hopefully the shot they select is not too outlandish.

To more absurdist (yet much appreciated) promotions and adventures.

b) And this came out June 15th on Fox News Online. Reporter Andy Pasick did a great job. Enjoy. It's an article about Sex and Humor:

Click here: Bawdy in the Bedroom

or the URL: www.foxnews.com/health/s_file/index.sml

2. Chat Groups: a) Stop by my AOL/Digital City "Shrink Rap (TM) and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9:30-11pm EDT aol://2719:3-4759-DC%20Support%20Chat">DC Support Chat. It's a dynamic, lively, at times witty and always warm, thoughtful and supportive problem-solving group. We raise questions and share our ideas, hopes and experiences with each other.

b) The Stress Doc Teams with WebMD.com

The Stress Doc leads his lively, monthly mutually supportive one hour "Practice Safe Stress" Internet Support Group for WebMD.

Next "Shrink Rap/Chat": June 28th at 2pm PT and 5pm ET.

Questions? Email Jon Roig at jroig@webmd.net or call 503.943.3279

Ask the Stress Doc Love and Relationships Q & A

1) Fortifying a Wound SELF with Hostile Relatives

Q. hi there…thanx for all your newsletters…could u address verbal abuse sometime…I tell u after all these years I still have such a hard time dealing with family members that are so hostile…more my extended family…thanx again for all ur assistance and have a pleasant shabbos.

A. Hostile family members: "You can’t live with them, you can’t be alive without them." Dealing with consistently hostile relatives, that is, immature, invasive and potentially injurious individuals in a healthy manner means: 1) not hiding from or pridefully denying the pain when attacked, 2) having the conviction of facing the hurtful and humiliating feelings evoked, as opposed to saying you were provoked. (By judging the feelings as being "provoked," then it becomes easy to blame the other party for making you feel a certain way.), 3) recognizing the importance of and learning to establish psychological and interpersonal boundaries ("You can’t live with them") and 4) viewing hostile antagonists as a spur to developing integrity and realizing a capacity for courage ("You can’t be alive without them"). Each time you constructively stand up or consciously choose to walk away or "let go" in the face of dysfunctional family dynamics, you are building emotional stamina, emotional muscle and your own psychological identity!

Integrity and courage means confronting pain – both from without and within. And certainly, engaging hostile family members in a non-dysfunctional manner can be scary, because you are choosing to be real, open and vulnerable. There’s no denying the potential for rejection and retaliation – further insult to injury.

The first step in healthy confrontation, of course, is doing a self-inventory. To take on a hostile family member first embrace and challenge these four dimensions of your own "Wounded SELF": Sensitivity, Envy Loyalty and Fairness.

1. Sensitivity. Those most reactive to a venomous sting often are folks with an acutely tender skin. This tenderness is often a product of both a genetic predisposition to sensitivity and of life experiences that left one feeling injured or devalued and invisible or misunderstood. Perhaps this is why creative types frequently have so much source material and raw material to work with.

Having a sensitive nature is definitely double-edged. Such a person, for example, often is attuned to both verbal and non-verbal messages laced with attacking or passive-aggressive elements. And, equally likely, the sender of such barbs claims unawareness or denies such hostile intentions. (Which of course can be infuriating for the wounded party. Then again, remember, there’s more than one wounded party here.) So a sensitive individual has a harder time overlooking the breadth and depth of the communication: Message sent is often not message received, and not simply because of distortion on the receiving end.

Reflecting this double-edged reality, a more sensitive psychic antennae is frequently paired with a less hard and less well-defended psychic shell. The snake bite may have toxicity and the venom has struck a hot-reactor host. Once stung, such a person may as quickly implode, that is, become hurt and depressed, or ashamed and suffer in silence as to explode in rage, that is, to cover up the hurt and perceived humiliation.

2. Envy. Another person susceptible to others’ hostile ways is the individual quick to feel envious of others – for achievements and financial class to good looks or winning personality. (Of course, societal blocks to opportunity – whether because of racism, sexism or ageism, etc., need to generate less envy and more vital anger and individual/social activism.) And when an envious person is also envied by hostile others, the torment may be doubled and be doubly confusing.

Not surprisingly, a person who must compulsively and indiscriminately compare himself or herself with others is often not able to recognize or value his or her own distinct attributes and aptitudes.. This person may well have had to bottle up or cover up genuine energy and essence from an early age. Not only does this diminish confidence, but the envious person is often impaired when dealing with conflict. He does not know how to stand up to antagonists in a non-dysfunctional manner. He too urgently needs their approval. In general, he is too focused on others or preoccupied with what others do to him, i.e., how others make him feel. This fairly tortured soul is not able to or is afraid to connect with his or her own genuine emotions and real sense of self – the good, the bad and the ugly. Of course, being genuine usually means connecting to the often murky, if not unspeakable, pain of early childhood interaction.

3. Loyalty. Speaking of dysfunction, this is one of the most overused and abused concepts on the family battlefield. Too often family members equate loyalty with conforming to and promoting an image and story of family strengths (one big happy clan) while disguising or denying harsh realities (spousal or child abuse, mental illness, financial status, etc.). There’s often a poor sense of physical or psychological boundaries; individuality and loyalty are contradiction in terms. Ah yes, an opportunity to use one of my favorite psychobabble terms: the family is an "undifferentiated ego mass"! (Boy, if that doesn’t revolt and motivate a person caught in this big muddy nothing will.)

These families or, at least, the "powerful" members are often quick to feel humiliated or abandoned when their belief system, intentions or actions are questioned. Might and/or fright makes right. (I recall a bayou grandma, the matriarch, and her method of controlling extended family behavior, especially any individual attempts at real emotional and physical emancipation. Her tools of destruction: guilt-inducing threats and bouts of depression, that is, taking to bed for extended periods.)

These loyalty driven families often ignore two communication axioms:

a) "Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty" and b) The difference between "acknowledgment" (letting a sender know that his or her message has been received) and "agreement" (affirming points of connection, understanding and mutual solidarity). And, of course, in healthy families, members can agree to disagree. Let me close this section with the Stress Doc’s "Loyalty Catch": Those who never want you to answer back always want you to back their answer!"

4. Fairness. Alas, being raised in a rigidly loyal or "there’s one right way" family doesn’t only produce rebels or social deviants. More likely, it yields a person for whom fairness is the "11th Commandment." Often when anger expression is automatically labeled as "mad or bad," there are few role models regarding the healthy communication of anger and working through of conflict. This can lead to overresponsible, self-sacrificing individuals who don’t genuinely state their needs and wishes or concerns and frustrations. In turn, these "too good," too responsible – doing everything for everybody – family members often feel injured and enraged when others don’t take note of or appreciate all their altruism and sacrifice. "After all I’ve done for you"…("you ungrateful…" or "you selfish…") is the overt or covert battle cry. Life is black and white, right and wrong, good and bad and these caretakers, if not martyrs, extol playing by sacred rules. And, ironically, these rules often are not clearly articulated. Talk about being "unfair," you wind up discovering the rules after being chastised for breaking them.

As my brother likes to say, "I’ve given up having any expectations (of people) and I’m still usually disappointed." Beyond the cynical humor, there can be a silently judgmental point of view that can too easily bypass raising questions and negotiating expectations.

Hopefully, with a better understanding of "The Wounded SELF" – both of your antagonist’s wounds and your own wounds within – you can overcome being mystified by another person’s outrageous behavior and can learn to set swift and sure limits on rage and hostility. By accepting vulnerability you also affirm integrity. Consider "The Stress Doc’s Four Steps for Disarming a Hostile Encounter":

1. Get Real. The immediate task is to confront your disorientation, if not shock: "How can anyone be so insensitive or hostile?" Get over it. Some folks are cruel, other folks just don’t have a clue. These types are either emotionally shallow, extremely self-absorbed or empathetically-deprived. (And please forgive any redundancy.) Others have become bullies by habit and success: they intimidate both to get their way and in order not to be intimate or open with their own anxieties or other vulnerable feelings. (Hmmm, I just noticed that if you remove the "id" from intimidate you get intimate.)

Whether your hostile antagonist evokes shock, fear or outrage getting cognitively clear and emotionally centered is critical for planning your strategic, boundary setting response.

2. Stay Silent, Go Deep. For an adult response to provocation as opposed to a childish reaction, you must get centered and current. This means doing an inner survey: are any prior hurtful encounters with antagonists exaggerating the readings on your psychic Richter Scale? For example, not withstanding Shakespeare’s admonition about lawyers, a former client, a law firm administrator, when dealing with those aggravating "Type A"s (in DC, "A" is for attorney) had to dig deeper to explain his hair trigger reactivity. This manager had to gut that years of verbal and emotional taunting by his father too often reflexively triggered hyperreactive mode in the face of word to word combat. And gutting literally meant reexperiencing in his gut the shame, fear and rage of his childhood and adolescence.

With practice sitting quietly and sorting out the historic from the immediate hurt and hostility, you will dramatically shorten this tuning in, integration and constructive assertion process. Sometimes you need to call a time out to space out – to do the requisite head work, heart work and homework. Or you may need to check in with a stress buddy or stress coach for emotional reequilibration.

Of course, it’s frustrating when you can’t come back with the perfect parry to some hostile remark. Don’t worry…You’ll be able to nail the bozo later. No, just kidding. ;-) But French author, Andre Gide’s psychic salve (for a wounded ego) and salvo (for deflating the same) comes in handy: "One must allow other’s to be right…it consoles them for not being anything else!"

3. Defuse "You"s with Wise "I"s. Frequently, hostile communicators attack with "acc-‘you’-sations": "What’s wrong with you?," "You’re making me crazy," or "You screwed up!" Is it a one time mishap? Of course not. "You screwed up once again." Or, even better: "You always screw up" and "You never do what you’re supposed to."

Sometimes it’s an intrusive or invasive comment that needs to be stopped at your self-integrity border to prevent any significant toxic impact. For example, with my five year younger brother, I recently mentioned being a bit down. The demands of syndication and too much work/not enough play syndrome were contributing factors. Larry, an analytic type, suddenly opined, "Maybe you should up your Prozac dosage." Startled, I blurted out, "No." He then cooly stated, "It sounds like a ‘Yes.’" (That is, he implied my "No" was defensive thus providing further evidence of a need to consider meds readjustment.

Initially, I told him, "I found the comment flip." He disagreed. After a temporary nonverbal cessation of sibling thrusts and parries, I returned to our unfinished engagement. First, I acknowledged that he didn’t feel he was being "flip." I also emphasized my sensitivity and our different styles of communication. (He’s cerebral, I’m definitely more emotional.) I also affirmed that on a complex and very personal subject like depression and medication, I’d prefer him to ask questions than just shoot from the lip. Actually, I said, "When you just throw out an answer, it sure feels flip to me. And I’m not getting the support that I need." And maybe a little breakthrough in mutual understanding was achieved.

So being able to affirm: a) who you are, b) what does or doesn’t feel comfortable, functional or healthy, and c) what you want, need or prefer enables you to set boundaries and enhances the chance for a negotiated settlement.

4. Take a Risk. Based on a history of some emotionally charged sibling encounters, I felt somewhat vulnerable being open with Larry. My fear was that if I shared my sensitivity, my feelings of being attacked or devalued he would deny it. Even worse, Larry could make fun of me or make some clever, self-gratifying retort. (Historically, wit has been his frequently unsheathed sword.)

So while a bit apprehensive, I took strength from using those "I" messages – what felt comfortable or hurtful for me. The key, perhaps, is not feeling so ashamed to acknowledge that his comments could sting. Another critical step was not needing him to agree with my perception and belief. It wasn’t essential he recognize our interactional dynamics or what motivates his behavior. Yet, when he did stop and consider what I was saying (acknowledging my own "sensitivity" appeared to be a face-saving "quid pro quo") I expressed my appreciation.

Closing Summary

As outlined, dealing with hostility requires setting boundaries and affirming integrity. First, you must tend to a "Wounded SELF." Psychological and interpersonal dynamics around "Sensitivity," "Envy,’ "Loyalty" and "Fairness" if not effectively managed can lead to a range of dysfunctional behavior – from passively tearful to the righteously vengeful. Then put these problem-solving steps into action: 1) Get Real, 2) Stay Silent, Run Deep, 3) Defuse "You’s" with Wise "I"s and 4) Take a Risk. Now you are in position to both disarm an antagonist and affirm a commitment to…Practice Safe Stress!

Reader's "Higher Power of Humor" Section

Thoughts From: SWells1835@ao.,com

Only Adam had no mother-in-law. That's how we know he lived in paradise. ~ Old Yiddish Saying ~

A problem not worth praying about is not worth worrying about.

A backslider suddenly began attending church faithfully on Sunday mornings instead of going fishing. The pastor was highly gratified and told him, "How wonderful it makes me feel to see you at services with your good wife!" "Well, Preacher," said the fisherman, "it's a matter of choice. I'd rather hear your sermon than hers."

Bright eyes indicate curiosity. Black eyes indicate too much curiosity.

For many generations a family had raised cotton in a lush southern valley. Unfortunately, the boll weevil came to call and for three seasons their crop was wiped out. The younger members of the family urged their patriarch to leave the cursed valley which was driving them to ruin but he refused, saying, "Though I live in the valley in the shadow of debt, I will fear no weevil." --------------------------------------------------------------

If you're too open minded, your brains will fall out.

Artificial intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.

A conscience is what hurts when all your other parts feel so good.

Seek the Higher Power of Humor: May the Farce Be with You!

(c) Mark Gorkin 2000 Shrink Rap™ Productions