The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
April 1999, No. 2
News Flash: Alas, only for AOL members, stop by my online "Shrink Rap and Group
Chat," Tuesdays, 9-10:30pm EST: Washington LIVE 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.
Special Announcement: Dear Readers: I need some assistance. Would like to increase the
participation in my new Ask the Stress Doc Q & A. Would you
submit work-related stress questions to the links below and/or share the links with others
who might want to participate? A sample Q & A follows the links. Thanks so much.
For all cyberspace travelers, there's the new Ask the Stress Doc Work Stress Q
& A Digital City - Washington, DC - Ask the Stressdoc is now featured
on a variety of 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
Also, check the Doc's Work Stress Q & A archive: Stess Doc's
Ask the Stress Doc Q & A/Digital City--Washington
Here's a question that appeared on my Q & A recently. While not necessarily work
related, it's such a popular question, I couldn't resist.
Q. Does stress cause baldness?
A. There is definitely a hereditary link in male pattern baldness. Of course, some men
attribute their dearth on top to testosterone abundance. However, my rejoinder to those
bemused by my loss of hair has a moral air: "You should be more respectful of my
hair...It was recently included in the World Wildlife Fund's Endangered Species
List." How's that...both politically and folliclely correct! Actually, the number of
women who email me this question is noteworthy. For example, I'm reminded years ago of a
female paralegal client who's most vivid symptom was hair thinning along with fallout. She
was in a dysfunctional relationship with a popular local newspaper columnist who was an
alcohol and marijuana abuser. Despite being bright, competent and attractive, her
self-esteem had plummeted. She was isolating herself and becoming increasingly depressed.
With encouragement she began a Prozac trial. As her mood stabilized, she started talking
to family members about her shame at being in such a dysfunctional situation. She got
closer to an older sister who gave her a membership to a fitness center. Also, revisiting
and further grieving the death of her father, who died when my client was in her 20s,
became a trial run for her eventual separation from her emotionally abusive partner. And I
still can recall her pronouncement that signaled the mind-body tide had irreversibly
turned: her hair was growing back as thick as ever! (A final note. I also had her do some
guerilla research on stress in her law firm: most of the attorneys, female and male, had
Grecian Formula 44 hair coloring in their desk drawers. ;-) Definitely "Practice Safe
Shrink Rap: Six days and counting...till the Stress Doc's Western "Practicing Safe
Stress" Tour. It starts off with an all day program for an international sales
division of Lucent Technologies in Tucson, AZ. Then on to Sacramento, first to lead a
facilitation for a National Weather Service work team. Next, we visit Oz or, at least, the
Silicon Valley, for a meeting with a Hewlett Packard manager and some of his staff. (He
already has purchased my Stress Management Training Kit, which includes an hour long audio
cassette radio interview and audience Q & A. Definitely very cool.) A future workshop
is in the offing. Back to Tucson, via Sedona, for 1 1/2 days of R & R. Then two more
Weather Service gigs -- Tucson and Eureka, CA. Twelve days, four cities, seven events.
Whew. As I've told friends, my major concern is not having luggage big enough for all the
needed underwear! Doing a wash in the middle of a tour...How mature and responsible.
I must admit, the performance butterflies are building up wing speed. If the Lucent and
HP sessions go well, there's the possibility of reaching a new level of exposure and
credibility as a corporate speaker, trainer and stress and psychohumor expert. (Amazingly,
both companies approached me after discovering my website -- www.stressdoc.com .) Will
start preparing for Lucent in a couple of days. Basically, the key is being myself:
trusting that all the hard work, all the practice, all the previous experience as a
presenter and program leader will enable me to deliver the goods. On an intellectual level
I feel pretty solid; the emotional realm is double-edged: a dynamic, swirling,
evershifting mix of fear and excitement. However, it is this motivational mix that
prevents me from getting complacent, from taking a client or myself for granted. I must
periodically dip into this pool of emotion, memories, gnawing doubts, concepts, examples,
exercises; must visualize and play back other workshops; must reconnect with what worked
and what felt a bit stale or predictable. It's not called "performance anxiety"
and "the creative edge" for nothing. And, yes, I can also recall my top five
questions for surviving high stress performance situations -- from the boardroom to the
bedroom: 1. Can you do it? 2. How well can you do it? 3. If you can't do it good, how well
can you fake it? 4. How long can you last? And last, and most important... 5. Will they
want you to come back and do it again? Definitely key questions for...Practicing Safe
The main section of the newsletter (below) continues to examine provocative
communication and strategies for disarming dysfunctional encounters. Then the readers'
section is composed first of feedback. The April 1999, No. 1 Newsletter produced a medley
of delightful and thoughtful reader responses. Next, some cynical corporate signs of the
For more articles on a variety of psychology topics, try these links: 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, "unsubscribe."
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
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 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"
"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 them 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!" 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
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
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
requires 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
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!
We''ll finish this power struggle treatise in the next newsletter.
The Stress Doc Ezine The Higher Power of Humor Section...
The second section will consist primarily of material -- humor and otherwise -- that
filters down from cyberspace. First a delightful medley of reader feedback from the April
1999, No, 1 Newsletter. Then, some cynical corporate humor: signs and posters of the
Your remarks about Creme Brulot and aerobics reminded me of something I heard the other
day at the Oklahoma State University Wellness Center where I go to work out 3-5 times per
week. They have several college students who staff the weight room and the particular one
who was on that evening looked like an inverted pyramid from the shoulders to the waist.
Definite weightlifter type. A client passed by and said, "Have you always been built
like that?" The student looked like he couldn't believe what he heard.
"No," he said, politely. "Just the result of a lot of hard work."
After the client was out of earshot, I said with a smile, "You mean it's not
genetic?" "I wish!" he replied. Now if they just made Creme Brulot that
went to your chest and deltoids...(8->
Glad you had a good time. With your schedule, you need every break you can get. Will
see who I can get to contribute to the Q & A sessions.
(Editor's Note: Actually, another writer, CJ, wondered whether Creme Brulot (my
rendition for the wonderful snack I had recently overlooking Biscayne Bay) might not have
been Creme Brulee. But she did hold out a neologistic possibility, that is, Creme Brulot =
Creme Brulee + Merlot ;-)
And the incessant inner voice, like a hyperactive child, finally quiets. Not asleep,
not awake...a momentary serenity mirrors the outer enveloping twilight.
Mark, how very lovely~~ You were able to enter my world for a brief moment. As I
create, an array of color surrounds me. It is a safe, beautiful place to be, my friend.
The only problem....sometimes it is too wonderful, and I feel myself going deeper and
deeper and not wanting to return.
Yes, Iris, I too learned how to enter that world through psychoanalysis twenty years
ago...and ultimately decided I didn't want to live there but wanted (no, too tepid, was
compelled) to live on the edge of several worlds (often simultaneously) -- from the deeply
subterranean to the hyperconscious. Every time I do creative writing, somewhat akin to
your special, colorful space, I have my visions and voices. Ironically, because I can't
close my eyes and clearly see images, I ultimately must paint pictures with words, sounds,
rhythms. So my 1,000 words and your picture are soul mates ;-)
Both the Hershel and "Team" stories are very poignant reminders of how a
third party perspective can bring out the buried pain with the inherent "gold"
and offer it up to a healing moment. The team story has me wishing that we had more
outlets for group mourning rituals. . .the parenting story has me wishing we had more
extended family/community participation in child-rearing.
Recently a much loved coworker's husband died after a two year struggle with cancer.
Many of us were invited to his memorial service, which was held at a well-known and
controversial church/workplace where this man had held a position of high esteem. Wow,
what an experience for those of us that crossed our belief boundaries to attend. We
learned so much more about our coworker as partner and much about her beloved--we deepened
our connection with her. Since that time, several of us have talked together about how we
walked away from that ceremony rethinking our own "living," including our own
partnerships or desire for partnership, the extent to which we are engaged in our
passions, and the ways we are reaching out to those around us in service. Grief and
mourning is sooooooooooooooo important as a process to be shared!
And Hershel. . .well, maybe he has something to teach me about my young son. Billy,
though younger, constantly picks on his sister--she who is "identified gifted"
tormented by he who is "identified ADD." It is the way he has chosen to get her
attention--and, I suspect, the attention of his separated parents' as well. Most recently
Billy, 10, repeated several times (over the course of their spring break) to his 14 year
old sibling: "Your legs are fat, did you know that--seriously, they are really
fat." (How "gifted" is that?) I don't need to elaborate on how effective he
is in his efforts to annoy, but he isn't seeking the alienation and anger that results.
What he wants is a less perfect role model. . .one he can reach up to. He wants to be
special too. Now all I need is the Sage to deliver this beautiful idea of right action as
a means to an end. . .hmmmmm.
Corporate America in the 90's From: Judy B.
You know you work in Corporate America in the 90's if... + You've sat at the same desk
for 4 years and worked for three different companies. + Your company welcome sign is
attached with Velcro. + Your resume is on a diskette in your pocket. + The company logo on
your badge is drawn on a post-it note. + When someone asks about what you do for a living,
you lie. + You get really excited about a 2% pay raise. + You learn about your layoff on
CNN. + Your biggest loss from a system crash is that you lose your best jokes. + Your
supervisor doesn't have the ability to do your job. + You sit in a cubicle smaller than
your bedroom closet. + Salaries of the members on the Executive Board are higher than all
the Third World countries' annual budgets combined. + You think lunch is just a meeting to
which you drive. + It's dark when you drive to and from work. + Fun is when issues are
assigned to someone else. + "Communication" is something your group is having
problems with. + You see a good looking person and know it is a visitor. + Free food left
over from meetings is your main staple. + Weekends are those days your spouse makes you
stay home. + Being sick is defined as can't walk or you're in the hospital. + Art involves
a white board. + You're already late on the assignment you just got. + When 100% of your
time means 20 hours.
SAYINGS WE'D LIKE TO SEE ON THOSE OFFICE INSPIRATIONAL POSTERS: From: MissPastel
Rome did not create a great empire by having meetings; they did it by killing all those
who opposed them.
Doing a job RIGHT the first time gets the job done. Doing the job WRONG fourteen times
gives you job security.
Eagles may soar, but weasels don't get sucked into jet engines.
Artificial Intelligence is no match for Natural Stupidity
A person who smiles in the face of adversity...probably has a scapegoat in mind.
Plagiarism saves time; if you still don't succeed, try management.
TEAMWORK...means never having to take all the blame yourself.
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
We waste time, so you don't have to.
Hang in there, retirement is only thirty years away!
Go the extra mile. It makes your boss look like an incompetent slacker.
When the going gets tough, the tough take a coffee break.
INDECISION is the key to FLEXIBILITY.
Aim Low, Reach Your Goals, Avoid Disappointment.
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
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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
** For his free newsletter, Notes from the Online Psychohumorist or for info on
the Stress Doc's Online Coaching program, email Stress