The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™
May 1999, No. 1
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Q: Doc, I own a recovery service in Florida, owned it for three years now and it is tearing my
family apart..I've told my wife that I wanted out but she says,"What else can we do that we'll
make the same kind of money?" It makes me feel like all she is worried about is the money! I am
running out of energy, my beautiful two and a half year old daughter is really the only thing that
keeps my mind straight and focused. I was raised in a broken home and I know what kind of damage
that can do to a child. I don't want that to happen to mine. What should I do????? Thanks for your
A: I'm hearing several different conflicts: a) money as the instrument and symbol of security vs.
the path of exhaustion, burnout and relationship misery, b) the possibility of family of origin
issues regarding financial security in light of a broken home and/or hard-scrabble existence, c) who
comes first -- your wife and business and/or your daughter. In addition, while it's good your
daughter helps keep your head on straight, I think you'd make a better case with your wife by
speaking from your own sense of integrity. Your "running out of energy" sounds like
burnout and, if not addressed, can lead to depression and other stress-related disorders. (Email for
my popular essay, "The Four Stages of Burnout.") So perhaps your wife won't feel your are
putting your concerns about your daughter over her needs. First and foremost is health and
Because money touches so many emotional hot buttons -- past and present -- I'd strongly suggest
couple counseling. (Your local United Way Family Counseling Agency or Catholic Charities provides
sliding scale services.) Hopefully, by working through unresolved family issues and real life
anxieties, understanding the importance of having energy and vitality for work and mutually
negotiating a short-and long range career/family plan your wife may learn that true security
requires more than money. For a couple it involves an ability to share vulnerabilities, to negotiate
options, to be supportive of each person's needs for survival, autonomy and intimacy. Get help with
the burnout; don't panic and impulsively run away from the business; together work out a solid exit
Shrink Rap: Greetings all. Back from the Stress Doc Western Road Show. Quite a mix of human
nature and mother nature. First stop was with a highly paid, high stress international sales outfit
with a Big Brother type division head. (He wasn't at the workshop.) As one of the participants said:
"With the money we make, no one's going anywhere," even with CIA-like investigations and
not so subtle threats for making waves. (In this case, making waves means trying to give honest
feedback on the dysfunctionality of a new computer system. Lying low, afraid of speaking up, is the
consequence of management reprisal. So too are outbursts of hostility and rage at work and at home
on the part of the sales staff.) The phrase "golden handcuffs" no longer feels like an
Before the workshop, this same company had an evening of Western food and entertainment hosted by
a John Wayne look-alike. The highlight was a quick draw game booth. Sharp shooting (and looking)
cowgirls holster you and your opponent as we position ourselves about five paces apart. (We've
already donned cowboy hats and red bandanas.) The guns shoot blanks, quite loud, and the smell of
gunpowder surrounds. We are given brief instructions on the quick draw technique: rapidly yet
smoothly remove the revolver, fan the protruding part at the back of the gun which becomes cocked (I
can't think of it's name; an NRA member I'm not) and then pull the trigger...and the exploding
sound. (Gee, why haven't I noticed the parallels between shooting a gun and symbolic orgasmic
potency before? Maybe because I was such a hapless marksman with an M16 in basic training.)
I'm taking on a supervisor. Slightly to the left, halfway between us is the signal light. I'm
waiting...waiting...adrenaline pumping...Blue light. Go. Whip out the gun. Left hand streaks across
the cocked piece, instantaneously followed by squeezing the trigger. .04 seconds. He does .08. I'm
still standing. I take two out of three. Get my "Quick Draw" blue ribbon. He gets a black
token that reads, "Rest In Peace."
It's scary how easy it is to get caught up in the romance, the competition, performing in front
of an audience, those lasses. And like the movies and video games it's all so seductively unreal.
And just so you don't think this is only a macho male thing...You should have seen the gleeful,
vainglorious looks on the faces of the female employees when outdueling a male manager!
Other scenarios encountered during the 12 day swing were stress carrier employees who have work
teams walking on egg shells. In both cases, local management has attempted appropriate disciplinary
action. Regional or Head Quarter Offices have slowed or subverted the intervention process.
One IT corporation discussed planning a workshop for managers on the impact of downsizing and
reorganization. In addition to helping managers deal with their own and other's burnout symptoms,
there was a visionary twist: exploring how a genuine group grief process may free up creative energy
and enable managers and employees to engage with the change process in an innovative and imaginative
manner. And, hopefully, greater cohesion and trust may be an outcome.
Of course, both in the corporate and government sectors, the vast majority encountered were
bright, engaging and highly motivated problem-solvers. Still, mother nature was a lot more
The Refreshing Breadth and Reach of Nature
First, there was the eerily quiet Saguaro desert in Tucson. Big cacti standing sentinel,
trickling streams struggling for survival. Life and death; on the edge. Then the magical colorful,
awesome red rock formations of Sedona. (See previous writings on website under "Spiritual
Exploration.") Perhaps most striking was walking and hitching to an incredible vista five miles
from town up Schnebly Road, so rocky all but the most hardy vehicles are discouraged. It had just
stopped raining. An overwhelmingly dense mist, occasionally transforming into transparent cloud
puffs was wafting from the valley below. Talk about the primal soup.
And then the five mile trek back into town. One vehicle stopped when I waved it down, but
wouldn't give me a lift: "Too many weirdoes in Sedona; people get killed." I was about to
make a case for my not being "a weirdo," when I decided I couldn't come up with a
convincing argument. Damn, the free breakfast at the B & B. I'll never make it back in time.
The upside was the relief and enchantment finally returning to my Victorian style lodgings, by
the side of a creek...and the cook/proprietor agreeing to serve me breakfast: a banana muffin with
powdered sugar, a fruit-cup topped with yogurt, artichoke quiche, JO and mint tea served in a
perfectly English cup and saucer. With Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" wafting in the
background. Sometimes life provides a moment in time when nature and human nature align into a
higher power synergy and symphony.
And speaking of the transcendent, try walking through Redwood Natural Park, in a steady downpour,
hardly a soul around, the dark green colors bursting through the misty cover. (The ranger tired to
encourage me despite the heavy rain. He said the trees would be happy. I asked if this meant that
they would hug me back.) These natural wonders are awesomely tall, erect pillars of fortitude and
faith -- life spans up to 2,000 years -- some well over three hundred feet in height, up to 20' in
diameter (though the coastal redwoods are less wide than the mountain variety). The trees create a
sensibility and serenity of a direct connection with a higher power -- God, mother nature, the
eternal mystery, etc. -- whatever your conceptual/spiritual framework.
Finally, a too brief encounter with Wedding Rock on Patrick's Point, about 30 miles north of
Eureka, CA, two hours south of the Oregon border. It's a favorite whale watching spot. While none
were viewed, the rocky coast, massive exposed boulder --brilliant to muted gold-slate patterns --
jutting way out into the Pacific. It's a fairly steep hike to the summit, but the reward is
palpable: the rich, kaleidoscopic green-blue-green ocean hues, the incessant oceanic ebb and flow,
smaller rock formations scattered off the coast like a pod of whales. The sheer, stark, hauntingly
rhythmically silent beauty and harmony of the big picture. And a great place, of course,
for...Practicing Safe Stress!
Main Article: Transforming Aggression with Higher Power "I"s -- A "Tongue Fooey"
case example and four steps to constructive confrontation
Reader's Submissions: Phrases for disarming aggravating workplace personalities and conflict
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> .
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Building on the role of "You" vs "I" messages in power struggles as depicted
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 four step confrontation that's a
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
fooey"-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. This supervisor was positively
engaged with me and the group for the remainder of the workshop.
The Doc's 4 Step Constructive Confrontation
Let me close this article with a Four 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
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: Without 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
b) Expectations. Express clearly and firmly your needs, desires or expectations to remedy the
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 Input
Explore where the other person is coming from; how do they see their workload demands on time and
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. My answer is influenced by having
lived in Washington, DC these past nine years. 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. Using an "I" message, 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
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.
So, IDEA...this acronym is truly a good idea 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!
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. Speaking of "tongue fooey," today we have some versatile phrases that
will come in handy with a wide variety of business personalities and conflict situations. Enjoy the
"fast food for thought."
Phrases You Can Use In A Myriad of Business Situations From: LeMiz00
1) Thank you. We're all refreshed and challenged by your unique point of view.
2) The fact that no one understands you doesn't mean you're an artist.
3) I don't know what your problem is, but I'll bet it's hard to pronounce.
4) Any connection between your reality and mine is purely coincidental.
5) I have plenty of talent and vision. I just don't give a damn.
6) I like you. You remind me of when I was young and stupid.
7) What am I? Flypaper for freaks and whiners!?
8) I'm not being rude. You're just insignificant.
9) I'm already visualizing the duct tape over your mouth.
10) Ahhh...I see the &%*!-up fairy has visited us again...
11) I will always cherish the initial misconceptions I had about you.
12) It's a thankless job, but I've got a lot of Karma to burn off.
13) Yes, I am an agent of Satan, but my duties are largely ceremonial.
14) No, my powers can only be used for good.
15) How about never? Is never good for you?
16) I'm really easy to get along with once you people learn to worship me.
17) You sound reasonable...Time to up my medication.
18) I'll try being nicer if you'll try being smarter.
19) I'm out of my mind, but feel free to leave a message...
20) I don't work here. I'm a consultant.
21) Who me? I just wander from room to room.
22) My toys! My toys! I can't do this job without my toys!
23) It might look like I'm doing nothing, but at the cellular level I'm really quite busy.
24) At least I have a positive attitude about my destructive habits.
25) You are validating my inherent mistrust of strangers.
26) I see you've set aside this special time to humiliate yourself in public.
27) Someday, we'll look back on this, laugh nervously and change the subject.
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
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