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.

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