Coping with Second-hand Stress
Here is some assertiveness training for dealing with emotional bullies or master manipulators. The key is to see the invisible force they hit you with–stress.
When somebody “stresses” you, according to the dictionary, they are subjecting you to pressure or strain. The verb “subject” literally means to throw somebody under something, like the proverbial bus, or in this case, a busload of stress. Only if you see the bus coming can you step aside.
Research has repeatedly shown that chronic high levels of stress weaken the immune system and lead to sickness and death. So stressing works a lot like smoking: people take in something that isn’t good for them, and exhale it out of their mouths for others to absorb. Like second-hand smoke, second-hand stress sickens and speeds the death of healthy bodies and relationships. And like with smoke, if you stand there and don’t say anything, it gets to you. You’ve got to say or do something to protect yourself.
The first thing is to recognize when you are being put in harm’s way. Here are a dozen common examples of how emotional bullies and master manipulators stress (or dis-stress) others:
- Playing helpless: with a deep sigh, “I just can’t. I tried, but. . .”
- Playing victim: exaggerating harm done to them: “I was totally blindsided!”
- Bogus praise: mentioning or glorifying the help of others, so you’ll feel guilty by comparison: “Bill and Joe have helped me.” “Sue was my savior.”
- Disapproval: with a frown, “I thought you were my friend. I thought you cared. A big help you are!”
- Shoulding on you: appointing themselves as an expert or authority over you, “You ought to/need to/got to . . .”
- Going Commando: demanding instead of asking you, “Tell your mother. . .”
- Chronic complaints: like a chain smoker, a chain-stressor is always complaining
- Megaphoning: ramping up the volume, pace or tone of the voice
- Intimidating: predicting regret or misfortune for you somehow if you don’t aid the stressor.
- Interrupting: not listening to you, and interrupting when you try to back off
- Catastrophizing: ramping up a problem’s danger: “That’d be TERRIBLE! I’d just die!”
- Beat the clock: ramping up a problem’s urgency; “This has to be done NOW!”
Study this list, thinking of stress-dumping people in your life, and you will train yourself to identify the smell of second-hand stress, and hear the bus coming. But we all know that when you start getting out of the way, the most skillful bus drivers will steer toward you to clip you when you’re leaving the street.
Assuming now that you can identify these stress-inducing behaviors that will trigger your bogus pressure alarm, how can you keep people from throwing you under the busload of stress that they carry around? How do you avoid absorbing someone’s second-hand stress?
Here are some ways that are polite, and respectful of the stressor, but these remarks also respect your own right to refuse a problem, pressure, an expectation or feeling that has been laid out there for you to absorb.
The first thing is to ask them what they have already done about their issue. “What have you done to solve this problem yourself? Have you spoken to Joe directly? Why not? You might be wrong about him. If you feel you can’t approach him, is there someone you can take with you to help you communicate with Joe?”
The next three responses you could make would offer limited help:
∙ Buy yourself some time. “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” “I don’t make commitments like this under time pressure.”
∙ Refer the problem on to someone else, someone who can draw healthier boundaries and teach the stressor a thing or two about his or her own role in creating and solving the problem: “I really can’t help. The person you need here is Jack.”
∙ Offer to do what you think is fair, what you can afford to do, and leave it at that. “I will mention it to Jane, but I don’t know what you should do with your husband.”
The next set of responses are when it’s not your problem at all, and you sense the stressor not only hasn’t done all they should do to solve it, but isn’t ready to hear that from you either. You could say, “Hey, you’re pressuring me. Calm down. Go get some fresh air, say a prayer, count to ten, and then start over in calm voice and try to own that this is your problem, not mine.”
Another way would be to exit entirely. Use any one, two or three of these sentences, followed by a quick and firm change of the subject by you: “Wow, you’ve got a tough problem there. I just don’t know. I don’t see it that way. It’s not my problem. I didn’t cause it, and I can’t fix it. I’m sorry you feel the way you do. My plate is full too—I don’t have time for this.”
When you refuse help, or offer only limited help, often the stressor will react by just intensifying the pressure on you. This requires a firm answer like: “I really don’t appreciate your tone. I don’t need your pressure. Apparently you’re so overloaded you are caring only about yourself right now, which is fine, but this shows me exactly why I don’t want to get involved in this. I’m not going to be your chump here.”
Whatever response you make, the key point is before you say anything, you have to realize YOU ARE HELPING stressors own and solve their own problems. If they sense any guilt or weakness on your part, the game is still on, and you’re going to lose this round. To take away the feelings, expectations, pressures or problems you are being offered would only serve to overprotect them. You’re giving the truth that will set them free, free of their illusions that they can always get somebody else to solve their problems for them.
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a licensed psychologist with offices in Lexington, Shelbyville, and Middletown (502 633 2860).