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Posted on Tue, Feb 21, 2012 : 5 a.m.

How can person change approach to difficult encounters?

By Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I think very slowly on my feet and in emotionally charged, conflict situations I always feel like I give up too much or too soon. I just can't think fast enough to grasp a situation or figure out how to defend myself or set boundaries. I walk away from difficult encounters with regret and a feeling of shame. Should I just accept that not everyone does everything perfectly and this is one thing I'll never get right? Or is there another approach?

-- Poor Reflexes

Admitting you're slow on your feet -- which is really just resignation, though "acceptance" is a shinier word for it -- actually takes care of roughly a third of the problem. No matter what you do, you will never change your nature and acquire lightning verbal or emotional speed, and so the sooner you stop asking yourself to, the better.

Another third is developing strategies to help you work around your nature. For example, you can come up with phrases that you practice ahead of time to use as a shield in these charged situations: "I really don't feel comfortable deciding anything at this moment; I'd like some time to think," followed as needed by "I'm sorry, I can't have this conversation right now, but give me a moment and I'll come back to it." That doesn't work when you're, say, getting hassled by a store clerk or dealing with some other fast-moving, stranger encounter -- but for those, you can also try a rehearsed line: "I'm going to step away for a second and let others go ahead while I consider this."

The final third is to choose your emotional partners carefully. If you feel that someone close to you tends to take advantage of your slow processing time, then this might not be the healthiest friend or mate to have. Plenty of people will respect your need to reflect and won't press you to commit to things on the spot.

Relatives are a different story since you can't choose them -- but you can control (to some degree) the timing, duration and nature of visits, which can have a similar, tempering effect.

Please know, too, that there's no "right" way to handle emotionally charged situations. You might not have quick access to answers, but the answers you get when you've had time to think might be excellent. Think of any changes to your approach not as fixing something that's wrong with you, but as adapting to your strengths.

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Hi, Carolyn:

You often advise letter-writers to seek therapy or other professional help. After a lot of hemming and hawing and bouts of denial, I have decided to take the leap. What should I expect? I waver so often between thinking I'm completely normal and totally whacked that I'm not sure I could articulately answer a simple "What brings you here?" Now that I have convinced myself I need the help, I'm nervous about actually doing it.

-- Anonymous

Consider what therapists see day after day: not just your shade of "totally whacked," but the whole rainbow. Just go in there and say what you said here. It's not your job to form your thoughts into perfect phrases; it's a therapist's job to put you at ease with telling the truth.

Email Carolyn at tellme(at), follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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