The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™
March 1999, No. 3
Shrink Rap: The season abounds -- new life, new light; but the dark side also surrounds. Buds are
springing while bombs are dropping. With the winds of war swirling, will the lamb replace and
outlast the lion? And battlefronts are seemingly omnipresent: a) managed care warfare making many
health professionals more adversarial than ever; b) reorganization threatening the survival of a
once vital federal department, a department soon to be swallowed up by a much larger decision; c)
the looming shutdown of suburban headquarters for navy civilian support personnel, along with a
what's perceived as a forced march to an inner city military base; (my slogan is apt: "damned
if I do, damned if I don't; damned if I stay, damned if I leave"); and d) a supervisor who
wants a child protection services staff to be more civil with each other at work; after meeting with
six of the 20+ employees, and absorbing some of the tension amongst management-staff-clients-city
bureaucracy, etc., my goal is to prevent a civil war from breaking out!
So today's newsletter will reprise a classic prose-poem written for AOL awhile back in response
to an impending invasion of Iraq. Why do I sense that this piece will accumulate in the years to
come much frequent flyer miles in cyberspace? In addition, there's a new piece illustrating some
organizational combat strategies at the power clashing and burnout bashing battlefront.
And the reader's piece fits right in with today's editorial theme: the latest features and
benefits of your new HMO! To good adventures.
Dear Readers. By popular demand, here is your gumbo of the sublime, the spicy and the ridiculous:
a tasty mix of my writings along with humor jokes, lists and other sparkling entities that have
descended from cyberspace. A perfect follow-up to the tensions in the health field: News Flash:
Alas, only for AOL members, stop by my online "Shrink Rap and Group Chat," Tuesdays,
9-10:30pm EST: <A HREF="aol://4344:2993.chat.31195386.586807274">Washington LIVE
CHAT</A> . 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
However, for all cyberspace travelers, there's the new Stress Doc Work Stress Q & A -- AOL.COM Washington, DC - Home
The Stress Doc's Work Stress Q&A -- Ask the Stress Doc
is now featured on five Portals to the Web, including
- Netscape Netcenter
- Digital City
- AOL.COM Washington, DC - Home
All five portal links can be shared with and are operational for both users of AOL and the
For more articles on a variety of psychology topics, try these links: www.stressdoc.com or <A
HREF="www.stressdoc.com">STRESSDOC HOMEPAGE</A> and on AOL, Keyword: Stress Doc
or <A HREF="aol://4344:972.doc.1264535.556723207"> The Stress Doc @ Online
Psych</A> . And here's an AOL link with series of articles on burnout, downsizing, layoffs and
career transition, <A HREF="aol://4344:972.docwork.1255066.562088752">The Stress Doc
Interview @ Online Psych</A> .
If you know others who would like to receive "The Stress Doc Newsletter," please pass
their names along. (AOL subscription link <A HREF="aol://1391:43-61027">form driven
mail</A> .) And, if you wish not to receive the newsletter, just email me with,
The winds of war stirs up remembrances of encounters on the edge of combat...and ones tragically
over the edge. Whether this current military crisis is Known or simply known, it leaves an indelible
Who KNOWS War?
I have not KNOWN war; I have only known war.
I have not KNOWN the blaze of live machine gun fire pounding, screeching, whizzing overhead with
mortar shells - - - - the random blasts of crazed fun house terror. No time for the fireworks
flaring, gazing in the blackest night above when you're eating dirt, crawling on all fours, cradling
your baby M-16, mind numb save for the point 100 yards ahead that must be reached. But I have known
I have not KNOWN the fear of being smoke bombed and tear gassed in troop formation. Blinding
smoky clouds, not knowing where the men in front, behind and to the sides have disappeared in a
choking shroud of muffled coughs and cries and teary eyed. Paralysis, for an instant, before madly
reaching for the protective mask. ("And remember, soldier, it's not a gas mask!") But I
have known it.
I have not KNOWN the haunting, screaming, cold sweat post-traumatic nightmares of an Air Force
Pilot so enraged and deadened by endless sorties of secret killing in the Vietnam jungle. Yet,
inflicting terror and drugs is all he knows to stay alive. And still, ten years later, every night,
he's condemned to replay the battle scene. I have not KNOWN this, but a client has.
I have not KNOWN the heroic highs and lifeless lows of the desperate fight to halt the surprise
tank invasion of a Mid East enemy. Outnumbered ten to one. Somehow repulsing, somehow surviving
despite the loss of most of your buddies in their finest hour. Nor the unspoken guilt for having
done so. And this communal guilt only topped by the personal shame of the crash of a jeep you were
driving while bleary eyed and bloodied: you survive and two mates die. I have not KNOWN this, but a
Nor have I KNOWN the silent, anxious, weepy wait of a wandering wondering mother each day and
night if "The Knock" will come. The knock at the dreaded door. The dreaded door no longer
a protection against "The Visit"; against the lonely visitor declaring the end of a son's
patriotic duty. I have not KNOWN this, but a friend has.
Nor have I KNOWN my childhood friend, a Hollywood handsome, athletic Adonis, back from Nam, a
bloated shadow speaking gibberish until, tiring of his own impostor self on the streets of Flushing,
his winning, flashing smile and innocent boyish spirit frolicking in a Killing Field. Not able to
comprehend the division within; nor stand it...So jumps to his death to end the madness. But, this
alas, I have known.
War is hell for all who KNOW it and it's damn stressful for those who just know it.
A recent workshop with allied health professionals has the Stress Doc reflecting on provocative
workplace power struggles. He also illustrates a variety of systemic and interpersonal intervention
strategies and skills that transcend the medical setting. And, for a little lagniappe...enjoy a
Disarming Aggression and Organizational Power-Struggles >From the Heart of Team Focus to the
Art of "Tongue Fooey"
A recent workshop with nurses and social workers highlighted a familiar medical institution
conflict: the dysfunctional power-struggles between the mostly male doctors and the mostly female
health professionals. And in the context of cost-cutting managed scare and utilization review,
doctors, not surprisingly, feel their professional decision-making and procedural turf is
continuously being eroded. Alas, some physicians will openly or passive- aggressively act out their
anger, fear and loss of control. Some even play patients against the allied health staff, much like
a Parent A in a dysfunctional family (in this analogy, "the doctor") who creates an
unhealthy alliance with a child ("the patient") against Parent B ("the nurses-social
workers"). This alliance: a) distorts the child's view of Parent B (they become "The
Uncaring Wicked Witch"), b) gets the child to side with "nice guy" Doctor-Parent A
and c) the Child-Patient becomes a mouthpiece for Parent A and overtly or covertly attacks Parent B.
The classic family triangle maneuver. Actually, it's an extended family operation…We must not
overlook "Critical, Judgmental and Frugal or Tight-Fisted Uncle Insurance Company."
The workshop generated a variety of intervention strategies - systemic leadership, peer support
and verbal and non-verbal, one-on-one disarmament skills, i.e., "The Art and Practice of Tongue
Fooey!" Lets start with the big picture:
1. Enlisting Top Management Leadership. Sometimes there is a role for a Godfather or Matriarch
when a "family" is behaving criminally or cannibalistically with each other. My
recommendation: the President of the Hospital needs to meet with supervisors and/or representatives
from these two warring health camps - the doctors and the joint intake-utilization review team. Then
both sides need to agree to participate in a field-tested, combat strategies at the burnout
battlefront workshop - "Practicing Safe Stress: Disarming Anger and Building Team Morale
through Humor." And guess who's rested and ready…and it's not Dan Quayle! (Gee, he could
certainly benefit from a communication and conflict resolution skills program.)
Seriously, a dynamic session that allows these warring professionals to better appreciate and to
laugh at the stressors and tensions from the other's perspective is a key step towards fostering
empathy for "the enemy." Engaging in real yet safe interactive team exercises helps shift
the isolated competition--interdependent cooperation balance. (Email email@example.com for my
article, "On Becoming a Psychohumorist," for philosophy, techniques and strategies on
using humor and interactive exercises.)
2. Creating Peer Support. Let's not just pick on those patriarchal males. The women nurses and
social workers were also being beaten down by the Director of Utilization Review ("UR
Us"). This woman was heavy-handed and harsh-mouthed. The allied health professionals spoke of
the weekly verbal bashings in "the hot seat." This Tyrannosaurus Administratus was pushing
the nurses-social workers to cut the length of patients' stays and reject "unnecessary"
medical procedures. The participants' bent heads upon speaking, weighed down by hurt and
humiliation, eyes diverted from mine, told me these folks were in a classic abusive,
battered-spouse/battered child-like situation. (Her throwing threats of dismissal darts was a
favorite intimidation tactic.)
First, we had to help a supervisor in the room not minimize the severity of this administrator's
behavior. Yes, she's under considerable performance pressure herself. Nonetheless, don't enable or
explain away the depth and breadth of such destructive and demoralizing leadership style. This
supervisor is somewhat trusted by Herr Adminstrator. Once we got this supervisor on board, the group
agreed to select one nurse, one social worker along with the aforementioned supervisor to meet with
the Tyrant Queen. The goal: to make the UR staff meetings more productive for all concerned and to
have the group help this leader meet her mission. (Sometimes you just have to use tactful language
and to soothe and support a troubled ego.) Hopefully, this planning meeting will set the stage for a
full group gathering and the establishment of a bottom-line objective: making constructive and
participatory communication (not just a top down mode) a vital group norm. And, of course, built
into this process, is calling a "time out" when conflict and tensions are escalating
Tuning In. Finally, as I suspected, this dozen-member UR team had weekly staff meetings that are
totally task- and time-driven. I shared my concept of "the wavelength section" of team
meetings. For example, in an hour meeting, the last fifteen minutes should be set aside for
discussing how the group is working as a team; how people are feeling and relating; are folks
bumping into and/or supporting each other. Create time and space for acknowledging and appreciating
individual and group practices and partnerships that are stress relieving and morale building. And
this wavelength segment can rotate leadership; all members get a chance to facilitate. (And why
can't there be family wavelength meetings as well?)
3. Utilizing Verbal and Non-Verbal Disarmament Skills. One of the nurses set the tone for the
imaginative use of humor in disarming an aggressor. The battleground was the telephone; the
adversary was her husband. When hubby calls, being overly loud and demanding, displacing frustration
with his work onto her, a disarmingly ingenious ritual is triggered. Our heroine starts scratching
the phone receiver and delivers a subtly powerful line of her own: "With all that yelling
there's an awful lot of static on the line." She claimed this procedure acts like a whack on
the head. Her husband quickly regains some awareness and emotional equilibrium. (Ah, I can hear the
hallelujah chorus sighing, "If only more men were so easily trainable.")
Verbal Martial Arts. I also shared an existential encounter at a previous conflict management
workshop for beleaguered nurse supervisors and their administrator. Voicing the frustration for the
collective, the administrator, with barely disguised anger, exasperatedly asks, "What happens
if you're just tired of accommodating these (mostly male) doctors, being the one who always has to
bend? Then what?" As the expert, I definitely felt on the hot seat. Fortunately, only time
froze, my brain was cooking. (Hey, I guess when you're on the "hot seat" it's not so bad
having brains where you sit…;-) I suddenly replied, "Try telling the doctor, 'I may not be my
normal cheerful self today.' When he asks, 'Why not?' say, 'I hurt my back.' Then, when he inquires
in a somewhat haughty manner, 'Now how did that happen?' reply humbly, 'I'm not sure but, lately, I
think I've been bending over backwards for too many people.'" Both groups of nurses roared
Diplomatic Aggression. When issues such as managing conflicts and defusing power struggles cry
out or muscle their way onto the workshop agenda, I invariably respond with a story and an exercise
(the latter to be shared in a future newsletter). The story dates from my computer virgin, pre-cybermania
phase. I was bringing word processing work to a woman who owned an office services business. Like
myself she was a classic, Type A ex-New Yorker. (Both of us from Queens.) Anyway, I handed Miss A
two stacks of paper, white and gray, along with a typed draft to be word-processed. Upon picking up
the work, I discovered the work had been copied on just one of the stacks. Having barely finished
declaring that I need the work on both sheets of paper, our business tiger sprung into her
"being offensive is the best defense" mode: "Well how am I supposed to know what to
do if you don't know how to give clear instructions!"
Suddenly, it feels like I've been speared in the gut. After recoiling momentarily, I purposefully
raise myself up, lean forward, deepen my voice and moderately but noticeably increase the decibels.
Remaining in control, I put up my hand, the open palm facing her, held at shoulder level, about
eighteen inches from my body, two feet away from touching her, and firmly announce, "I'm not so
Now Ms. Aggressor, stopped in her warpath, lowers her volume and tone a bit and says, "Well
if there was a problem in communication, it takes two." (I told you…she's a New Yorker.
Ground is given grudgingly.)
Reflecting ever so briefly, I respond with conviction: "That I can live with." The
confrontation is over. What happened here? How did I disarm my attacker? (Does anyone feel I wimped
Several judgment calls and interventions are operating - some simultaneously, some sequentially:
1) "I'm not so sure." On a verbal level, I'm taking a diplomatic approach to her
blaming "acc-you-sation" regarding my alleged inability to give instructions. I'm implying
(and this is certainly possible, especially in my "New York Minute Mode") that perhaps I
did not give clear instructions. However, am I taking all the blame for the problem? Definitely not.
I'm using a mutual face-saving strategy - sharing the responsibility.
2) Non-verbal language. While my words are tactful, my nonverbal communication such as tone of
voice, serious facial expression, body language - being upright, moving forward, giving a hand
signal, etc., is unambiguously clear. My essence declares, "Stop! I won't accept or allow such
verbal hostility to continue." And my purposeful and passionate retort deflates some of her
self-righteous steam. However, this is not a trivial ego.
3) The existential moment. My antagonist now delivers her ego-saving encounter: "Well, if
there's a problem in communication, it takes two." Does this woman have an attitude, or what? I
mean, if you are not left speechless, dumfounded, or just walk away muttering to yourself, what do
you really want to do in this situation? You want to shake this person silly. Fortunately, the
self-protective parry, "I'm not so sure," was like a quick acting antitoxin procedure for
a snake bite, removing the verbal poison from my system. This maneuver also reduces the likelihood
of my succumbing to a state of blind or smoldering rage.
Now I'm in a position to evaluate and play out this tenacious tango more objectively. Too often
we get entangled in the power struggle web. When a challenging attitude is in our face, the instinct
is not just to set up a boundary, but often to put someone down: it's win-lose, right-wrong. And we
miss the essential issue.
Once Miss A dropped her overtly hostile blaming, then I could take the high road. Hey, if I
stopped negotiating or problem solving with all folks with a bothersome attitude in Washington, DC…I
might as well join a monastery. Abuse I won't accept; attitude I can live with. The greater goal is
clear: I want us to get back on the same page and get the project accomplished. (Miss A does very
good and efficient work. Granted, sometimes, you pay an unexpected price.)
So don't get sidetracked by ego- or pride-driven issues of being right and vaingloriously
victorious. It may be enough to hold on to the self-satisfying words of French author, Andre Gide,
from his book, The Immoralist: "One must allow others to be right…It consoles them for not
being anything else!" (Sometimes a touch of self-righteousness just can't be helped. For
example, see my lyrical ode below: "The Self-Righteous Rap.")
In conclusion, returning to the workshop, three powerful interventions emerged for dealing with
organizational, hierarchical and dysfunctional power struggles: 1) firmly encouraging top management
to play a constructive mediator role between warring parties, 2) enlisting peer support -- a
tactical display of strength in numbers -- to counter abusive authority, and 3) employing a variety
of nonverbal and verbal communication skills and strategies for disarming those ever-present stress
carriers. With consistent usage, these tools will become a natural part of your organizational
survival kit and, most important, you'll be…Practicing Safe Stress!
The Self-Righteous Rap
You didn't know life is all right or wrong Your victor or victim…or just don't belong There is
no question; life's but bleak or white Forget ambiguity when hooked on Freud-lite.
What happened to subtlety and shades of gray? The world's drinking and shrinking its brain cells
away The rage that's stirred by mental oppression Compels this shrink rap regression confession.
When others demand you follow their lead (For they, of course, realize just what you need.) Don't
get upset over autonomy Just ask where they go for a lobotomy.
Or, are you a martyr in self-imposed prison? Denying your needs becomes heaven's vision. When
you've been hurt you just quietly pray But wish you could scream, "Go ahead, make my day!"
There's a real craft to fine confrontation But first let go of those "acc-you-sations"
Like "It's all your fault" or "you drive me crazy" All this reveals is a mind
that is lazy.
Be thoughtfully outraged and learn to reframe Make the strange familiar, the familiar strange. We
really are at a critical juncture So little time…so many egos to puncture. (Pop, Pop)
To disarm those who intimidate you Some self-defense lessons in the art of "tongue
fooey." With an all-knowing boss who wants to be feared, hey One more grad of the Institute for
the Compassion-Impaired. The Institute for the Compassion-Impaired.
Or, if you've had enough of that self-righteous scam: "I am as important as I think I
am." You don't have to listen to this bovine fodder Just say you're allergic; it makes your
And for those who demean with, "Grow up, act your age" Here's some advice that's worthy
of a sage While only young once, it's true, however, You intend to be immature forever.
So if life's a soap opera: "As the Head Swells" No need to be walking on those ego
shells. When the righteous start ranting they're all of a kind The bigger the ego, the smaller the
© Mark Gorkin 1992 Shrink Rap Productions ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Stress Doc Ezine The Higher Power of Humor Section...
The second section will consist primarily of humor material that filters down from cyberspace. As
indicated, a list of features and benefits that helps us better understand the term "managed
Your New HMO From: ACasiere
1. Pedal-powered dialysis machines. 2. Use of antibiotics deemed an "unauthorized
experimental procedure." 3. Head-wound victim in the waiting room is on the last chapter of
"War and Peace." 4. You ask for Viagra. You get a popsicle stick and duct tape. 5. Annual
breast exam conducted at Hooters. 6. Exam room has a tip jar. 7. You swear you saw salad tongs and a
crab fork on the instrument tray just before the anesthesia kicked in. 8. "Will you be paying
in eggs or pelts?" 9. Tight budget prevents acquisition of separate rectal thermometers. 10.
"Take two leeches and call me in the morning," 11. The company logo features a hand
squeezing a bleeding turnip. 12. Tongue depressors taste faintly of Fudgesicle. 13. Covered
postnatal care consists of leaving your baby on Mia Farrow's doorstep. 14. Radiation treatment for
cancer patients requires them to walk around with a postcard from Chernobyl in their pocket.
15."Prenatal vitamin" prescription is a box of Tic-Tacs. 16. Chief Surgeon graduated from
University of Benihana. 17. Directions to your doctor's office include, "take a left when you
enter the trailer park," 18. Doctor listens to your heart through a paper towel tube. 19. Only
item listed under Preventive Care feature of coverage is "an apple a day." 20. Only
participating Physicians are Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine. 21. Only proctologist in the plan is
"Gus" from Roto-Rooter. 22. Plan covers only "group" gynecological exams. 23.
Preprinted prescription pads that say "Walk it off, you sissy." 24. To avoid a
time-consuming and expensive throat culture, the doctor just French kisses you. 25. Recycled
bandages. 26. You can get your flu shot as soon as "the" hypodermic needle is dry. 27.
Your "primary care physician" is wearing the pants you gave to the Goodwill last month.
28. The 24-hour claims line is 1-800-TUF-LUCK 29. Costly MRI equipment efficiently replaced by an
oversized two-sided copier. 30. Enema? The lavatory faucet swivels to face upward.
Seek the higher power of humor...May the Farce Be with You!
And, of course...Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, the Stress Doc, a psychotherapist and nationally recognized speaker, trainer,
consultant and author, is also known as AOL's and the internet's "Online Psychohumorist"
™. Check out his USA Today Online "Hot Site" website - www.stressdoc.com
and his page on AOL/Online Psych, Keyword: Stress Doc
** Join the Doc's "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on
AOL/Digital City, Tuesdays, 9-10:30pm EDT (AOL Members Only) -- Dig City Promo - Stress Doc.
** The Stress Doc's Work Stress Q&A -- Ask the Stress Doc
is now featured on five Portals to the Web, including
- Netscape Netcenter
- Digital City
- AOL.COM Washington, DC - Home
All five portal links can be shared with and are operational for both users of AOL and the
** For his free newsletter, Notes from the Online Psychohumorist ™ or for info on the Stress
Doc's Online Coaching program, email Stress Doc@aol.com