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I went to an activity last night, one which was sponsored by a community activist group to which I belong. A long time member and a dear friend of mine sat next to me and, as we always do, we got to talking, These meetings are usually rather loosely organized and somewhat disorganized in structure; it's amazing how much we accomplish in spite of (or because of?) our anti-authoritarian approach.

My friend is a very sensitive person. She's the kind of person who will look for criticism in the most innocuous of statements, the friendliest of compliments. You say something like, "That shirt is the most beautiful shade of blue," and she responds with, "What's the matter? You didn't like the blouse I wore the last time?"

Heaven forbid I should even imply that something with which she is associated could be done better--or just differently--next time around. "I couldn't help it; no one told me what to do; it wasn't my fault," she protests.

I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to talk to her without causing her to explode or attack. And I'm finally coming to the conclusion that there's no way to avoid evoking the defense mechanism, the knee-jerk response to an imagined insult, attack, corection.

Her responses are more primitive than the usual realm of thought, not subject to the mediation of the logical part of the brain. She doesn't respond the way you'd expect. It seems as though my friend is obsessed with her fears of attack and perceives it everywhere, at all times. It's useless trying to please her, explain to her, reassure her. Basically, she's afraid and that fear trumps all other processes.

What I do is very simple. Every communication with her is predicated on the message: "It's all right. Everything is all right." I say it in as many ways as I know how, and it seems to work. "You're OK; I'm OK." She does seem to relax and be less defensive--until the next time.

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