We learned last week twelve ways that emotional bullies and master manipulators dump their pressures and problems onto us. 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.

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.

1. Have realistic expectations. Don’t sentimentalize old memories too much. And don’t go the other way either, replaying empty, depressing memories of the past. Content yourself with reality.

2. Give to others, without expecting anything in return—especially appreciation. Let that be a pleasant surprise, and give just for the pure joy it.

3. Dust off two or three good holiday memories as annual keepers, and make at least one good new one this year.

4. Take time to slow down. Smell the candles and cookies. Look at the houses all lit up.

5. Expand your family of origin, to include a family of choice too. Invite friends over, and treat them like family should be treated.

6. Believe in holy spirit. If believe seems too strong and absolute for you, pretend that holy spirit once did take up full residence in a human being, and is still doing it. When you act like something’s true, it begins to feel true, which will get you into the Christmas spirit for real.

7. Believe in saints, not ghosts. If you think people’s spirits can hang around and affect other people after they’ve died, don’t look back at the Scrooges of Christmas past. Look at Jesus. Believe or pretend that for a week and see how it goes.

8. Act out forgiveness. Forget about trust, just wish a meanie well. It’s your gift to God and yourself even more than to the one who hurt you.

9. Go outside where it’s quiet and natural. Wrap up real good, and stay out long enough to take it in, letting it take you in too.

10. Make the New Year a new kind of year. Write down three ways you could do this, and ask three people to help you with these changes.

I believe that America here at the turn of the millennium is going to be remembered in history as a nation of gluttons. Whether it is with our calendars, our budgets, our relationships, or our palates, we can’t get enough. Just about every celebrity I can think of is known for being or doing the most something. Who is known for being the most well-rounded? Most of us try to grow our self-esteem by owning or doing more and more things, not doing a few of the better things better.

What situations do you find it most difficult to say no?

Whining, demanding children or grandchildren? Spoiled teens and young adults in your family? Adult loved ones with behavioral or chemical addictions? Your main squeeze that you’re afraid of turning off or losing altogether? Your parents or authority figures whose frowning disapproval you can’t stand to risk? Your chronically down-in-the-dumps friend who has a talent for becoming a victim? Your church or charitable organization that needs to get a job done? A party-animal or shopaholic friend who’s inviting you to have some fun? A status symbol you suddenly find on sale? A stray cat on the side of the road?

When should you say no, and how can you explain it if asked? 

1. When you believe no one could possibly do what you’re being asked as well as you can do it. The problem here is you’re probably too vain, narrow-minded and workaholic, and folks could easily take advantage of you for this stuff, resent you for it, or both. Just say, "I want to see how somebody else would do it this time. It’s somebody else’s turn—let’s see some other ways it can be done." Or, "I don’t want to make it any easier for the people who created this problem to avoid taking more responsibility for solving it."

2. When you can’t decide what you’ll give up to make the time to do it. "My calendar is full right now, and I don’t see anything I can give up to make room for this."

3. When you’re having trouble honoring the commitments you’ve already made. "I’m so overcommitted I’m doing a poor job of several things, and I wouldn’t want that to happen here."

4. When you couldn’t do it well enough to satisfy yourself and those in charge. "The best I could do at this time would neither please you, me, nor the people I’d have to answer to."

5. When your family isn’t behind it. "This isn’t something my family could get very excited about or involved in, and I don’t need anything else to take me further away from them at this time."

6. When you haven’t been respectfully asked. Don’t reward people who tell, expect, guilt, or pressure you into things, like dropping something into your lap at the last minute. "I might have considered it if I had been asked and given some time, but I don’t do my best work under pressure, especially pressure I haven’t created. It’s not good for my immune system either."

7. Here’s the best reason of all to say no, because it is often a dashboard warning light, a sign that indicates one or more of the situations above: When your heart isn’t in it. "I don’t know why, but I just can’t find a passion for doing this. I’d rather wait and say yes to something I can put my heart into." This is reason enough to say no in my book, as long as my calendar is as it should be, pretty full of things I DO have my heart in, including a healthy balance of work, rest and play.

This gets us back to where we started. Doing fewer things allows us to do them better. Taking on too much erodes the quality of our performance, and with it, our reputation and self-esteem. Maybe it’s time you took a second look at saying yes to saying no. Often the times it’s hardest to say no are actually the times you and others most need you to do it.

Reader: My pastor says I’m a peacemaker, a good thing. My friends and doctor say I’m a sponge for stress, a bad thing. How could making life easier for others be wrong?

Is physical pain a good thing? It doesn’t feel good, but it does good. It draws our attention to the problem that’s causing it, and motivates us to get it fixed. Without pain, we’d all die of infection.

Stress works the same way in the mental/emotional realm. Carrying stress in a relationship is like being IT in a game of Tag. Unless you can solve the problem, (and many problems you can’t solve), you have to run around exhausting yourself until you can touch somebody else with the awareness that it’s their problem.

Say a man you know has a quick and nasty temper—he gets furious at the drop of a hat. He has a problem, you’d say. Yes, but not if he can get you to feel the tension, to worry about not setting him off. Then it’s your problem, because you’ve taken it on. The feeling of stress is the tag of "IT" on whoever is carrying the problem.

Some people are masters at downloading stress. Maybe they bring it on themselves with self-generated expectations and bogus beliefs of entitlement. But if they can get others to even be silent while they bark out their complaints, they never have to solve their problems, or even realize where they came from. And whatever group or family they’re in will always be awash with distress.

Unless somebody sets a boundary, and says things like, "I’m sorry you feel that way" or "Your anger is not my problem," and walks away without blaming, worrying or stressing themselves. Then the stress stays where it can do some good, at its source.

So who needs stress? The person(s) creating the problem, because otherwise, problems will continue to be carried around by the people who didn’t cause them, and thus can never solve them. Worse still, the people generating the problems and the stress sleep like a baby so they can generate more distress again tomorrow on a full head of steam and a clear conscience.


Contact Me
Dr. Paul F. Schmidt