Second-Hand Stress

As a follow-up for my recent columns on Coping with Difficult People, 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:

1. Playing helpless: with a deep sigh, "I just can’t. I tried, but. . ."

2. Playing victim: exaggerating harm done to them: "I was totally blindsided!"

3. 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."

4. Disapproval: with a frown, "I thought you were my friend. I thought you cared. A big help you are!"

5. Shoulding on you: appointing themselves as an expert or authority over you, "You ought to/need to/got to . . ."

6. Going Commando: demanding instead of asking you, "Tell your mother. . ."

7. Chronic complaints: like a chain smoker, a chain-stressor is always complaining

8. Megaphoning: ramping up the volume, pace or tone of the voice

9. Intimidating: predicting regret or misfortune for you somehow if you don’t aid the stressor.

10. Interrupting: not listening to you, and interrupting when you try to back off

11. Catastrophizing: ramping up a problem’s danger: "That’d be TERRIBLE! I’d just die!"

12. 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.

So next week I’ll tell you lots of good ways to respond so you can protect yourself from second-hand stress.

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt