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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

OCT 2008, No. I, Sec. II

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

Main Essay:

Transforming Crisis “Danger” into Dynamic “Opportunity”:

Applying "Picasso's Paradox," "Dewey's Dialogue" and "The FLASH of Grief"

In today's unpredictable and volatile times, "crisis" is an ever present psycho-social and politico-economic buzzword -- for example, financial crisis, crisis of leadership, and constitutional crisis.  In addition, the current meltdown is triggering crisis management within many companies and life stage crises -- e.g., mid-life and retirement crossroads -- for multitudes.   A crisis experience by nature poses major challenges fraught with uncertainty and considerable anxiety.  And clearly, the recent dire economic warnings and happenings support the popular and customary dramatic notion of crisis -- disaster, catastrophe, emergency, calamity, etc.

Crisis Frameworks

However, there are two frameworks -- one semantic, the other symbolic -- that challenge a one-sided, all-is-lost perspective:
1. Semantic.  Crisis comes from the Greek, "krisis," meaning "decision."  For Webster's Third New International Dictionary, "crisis" is a "decisive moment," or "a turning point for better or worse."  A synonym for crisis, "juncture," involves the significant occurrence or convergence of events.  Therefore, one notion of "crisis" is a juncture whose outcome will make a decisive difference.

2. Symbolic.  The visual symbolization of crisis by the Chinese has a paradoxical, yin-yang-like quality:  two interdependent characters depicting both "danger" and "opportunity."  Or as a Buddhist might phrase it, often there is an "offering in the suffering."  (Alas, many of the predators on Wall Street chose to minimize or criminally disregard the "danger" in "opportunity"; or maybe they were one-sided Buddhists and just ran off with the stock offering.)

Now consider a third crisis framework that captures the reciprocal relationship of two underlying crisis currents, forces that are more ordinary than extraordinary:

3. Strategic.  For me, crisis is the mutual intersection of "change" and "conflict."  That is, crisis is a critical juncture that:  1) involves significant change, often generating intrapersonal, interpersonal and inter-group conflict and 2) evokes significant intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict, often driving individuals, groups and systems to grapple with major and multifaceted change.  Of course, for many our current economic crisis seems less a compelling convergence and more a change-conflict collision.

Bringing together the semantic, the symbolic and the strategic provides a conception of crisis that is understated while also being more problem-solving focused and hopeful.  In these rapidly shifting and "future shocking" times, an integrated perspective enables you to use your head and your heart.  Many of these challenging junctures are double-edged decision points:  though uncertainty lurks and dark horizons loom, yet, with the familiar or foundational being shaken, attention may be refocused, minds break free and new paths or sources of illumination can be explored.  (Of course, realizing "opportunity in danger" may also require wrestling with that "dark night of the soul.")  Finally, by not reflexively associating crisis with emergency or disaster it's easier to design and deploy both targeted -- specific and immediate or short-term -- tactics along with a more comprehensive and long-range strategy.  A three-pronged framework allows for more flexible, rational and innovative problem solving even (or especially) during times of acute stress.

Picasso's Paradox, Dewey's Dialogue and the Doc's FLASH of Grief -- Discovering and Designing Dynamic Opportunity in Conflict and Change

We are almost ready to transform our three-fold crisis framework into a "turning point" tool for organizational intervention.   Such a crisis power tool must engage at the interplay of "danger and opportunity" and hit a higher gear at the "decisive moment."   A crisis mantra might be, "Progress or Regress!"  Growing through crisis requires a problem solving mindset and skill set that can courageously, imaginatively and productively transform precarious conflict and change into fresh, focused and flexible adaptation.  And this transformative ability requires an understanding of three additional concepts: 

1.  Picasso's Paradox.  Along with many others, Pablo Picasso, the ground-breaking 20th c. artist proclaimed that, "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."  Picasso's seemingly contradictory pronouncement is resolved upon realizing that an individual or a group must seriously question and mentally, emotionally and physically challenge conscious and automatic assumptions and habits, traditions and truisms in order to break free -- to conceive and construct, to dare and design anew.  To paraphrase the Hungarian, Nobel-prize winning scientist, Albert Szent Gyorgyi, creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought!

2.  Dewey's Dialogue.  Of course, a serious critique of oneself and of others is often the formula for conflict -- both within and with the outside world.  Yet it is just this willingness to self-question and challenge prevailing assumptions along with a capacity for tolerating uncertainty and psychological tension that primes and sharpens a cognitive mind set.  Consider the evocative words of John Dewey, the 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and "Father of American Public Education":

Conflict is the gadfly of thought.  It stirs us to observation and memory and shocks
us out of sheep-like passivity.  It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and
contriving.  Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

3.  The Stress Doc's FLASH of Grief.  The ability to respond innovatively, decisively and effectively in unstable and unnerving times of conflict and change requires more than just creative destruction (Picasso's Paradox) and "shock" therapy-like provocation, observation and instigation (Dewey's Dialogue).  One must be able to" let go," to lick one's wounds, to pause and ponder both the emotional mindscape and the crisis landscape.  And especially when confronting more personal and foundational crises or intense and far-reaching changes and conflicts the capacity for rejuvenating retreat or "The FLASH of Grief" often becomes essential.

First let's examine the concept of "grief."  Grief is the psychological modus and moodus operandi for mourning a sense of separation and passing, demise and disillusion.  Actually, grief may be triggered by deeply wounded pride or the death of a dream not just the loss of a loved one, an identity-marking role or a prized possession.  When fully engaged, that is when an individual or a group does its "head work, heart work and homework," the stage-like bereavement process facilitates -- sometimes quickly, usually gradually, and always mysteriously -- retreat, recovery and revitalization.  As I once penned:

Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion each
deserves the respect of a mourning.  The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists
and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time.  In mystical fashion,
like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

However, when people or organizations chronically distract or distance themselves from the heartache and pain of major change, deny the inner and outer changes that must be engaged to survive and thrive, then outcomes are fairly predictable.  You tend to see individual and group patterns of cynicism and callousness, hostility and rage, panic and passivity, substance abuse, and/or dysfunctional mania and depression.

Conversely, when individuals and communities grapple with double-edged Fear, Loss, Anger, Shame and Hope (FLASH) there is the potential for death and rebirth or, at least, there's a readiness for exploring "opportunity in danger":

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

Defining "The FLASH of Grief"

Using Webster's Third New International Dictionary, let's discover this generative pain and define the five double-edged components of "The FLASH of Grief":

a. Fear.  Fear is “the state or habit of feeling agitation or dismay:  a condition between anxiety and terror either natural and well-grounded or (sometimes) unreasoned and blind…The agitation aroused by anticipation of (pain, great distress and) danger or the actual awareness of present danger.”  Fear is sometimes contrasted with ill-defined or vague “anxiety” – “a strong sense of uncertainty,” “brooding fear” and “unpleasant feeling of helplessness and isolation” – often fueled by subconscious and critical voices from the past.

Therefore, the first step of empowerment may entail converting amorphous or arcane, paralysis- or panic-inducing anxiety into more tangible and, hence, targetable fear.  For fear connected to a target grabs our attention.  And even if not so precisely or logistically defined, fear (along with moderate anxiety) puts us on alert; our warning antennae are definitely vibrating.  It’s when fear, for example turns to “dread” or “extreme fear-inspired reluctance to face or meet a particular dreaded person or situation” that fear becomes dysfunctional and demoralizing.

Double-edged moral:  Remember, discovering or developing a capacity for courage usually requires a trial and error opportunity to wrestle with fear.

b. Loss.  Meanings of the Middle English word loss, (part of “losen,”) reveal its semantic diversity and psychological complexity:  “to lose, get lost, perish, destroy.”  Certainly Webster’s definitions have contemporary resonance:  “the act or fact of losing:  failure to keep possession” as well as “the act or fact of failing to gain, win, obtain or utilize.” (Did anyone say, “401k”?)  Another definition is related to this notion of failure or “deprivation”:  “the harm or privation resulting from losing or being separated from something or someone.”  (Not only do budget cuts loom; alas, too many will be out of a home and/or without employment.  Might not this tension threaten the stability of family relations, perhaps instigating family or marital breakup?)  And this disruption leads to a third broad usage:  “the state or fact of being destroyed or placed beyond recovery.”  The synonyms:  “destruction, ruin, perdition.”  The top left column, front page headline on the October 10 New York Times:  “Is this the End of American Capitalism?”

Clearly, the above “losses” jeopardize a sense of emotional equilibrium through a loss of control, the loss of a loved one, lost dreams, and a loss of face or self-confidence.  We are “at a loss: unable to determine: puzzled, uncertain.”  Also, we are thrown “for a loss into a state of depression, distress or exhaustion,” such that we experience a loss of “power or energy.”  (Or, as is increasingly apparent in this presidential campaign, when people’s feelings of fear and loss are preyed upon by leaders encouraging personal attack or scapegoating, then you are creating a volatile powder keg.  Displaced rage and violence are primed for eruption.)

Yet loss, as quoted above, is as necessary as a bare winter for laying the ground for a rejuvenating spring.  Letting go, while often painful, allows you to consider new paths and possibilities.  Nobel Prize-winning author, Albert Camus, made this poignant observation in his Youthful Writings:  “Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.”

Alas, too many confuse the sadness and vulnerability of loss not with “dark night of the soul possibility” but with ominous, sinking in quicksand and suffocating depression.  Or, people will trivialize your pain and tell you to stop wallowing in your sorrow or pity.

Double-edged moral:  Remember, there’s a real difference between feeling sorry for yourself and feeling your sorrow.  When you are feeling sorry for yourself you are blaming others, when you are feeling your sorrow you are courageously facing your pain.  And at times, we all need to embrace our sorrow.

c. Anger  When asking live audiences to free associate to the word, “ANGER” I mostly get negative associations – “yelling,” “out of control,” “danger,” “fear,” etc.  The one-sided personal experience of “anger” seems to mirror a more formal definition.  Anger is "a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism” (Webster’s) and is “aroused by real or supposed wrong" (The Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition).  However, compared to the lay perspective, a clinical designation is more descriptive and it unites objectivity and subjectivity.  Anger is a state of heightened activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system (for example, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, flushed face, muscles tensing, chest pains, sweaty palms, etc.) that is fueled by our cognitive – conscious and unknowing – interpretations.  You experience those "Four Angry 'I's," that is, you have a palpable sense of:

1.     Injustice. A rule of conduct, a cherished belief or instrumental goal is being threatened or abused; you see yourself (also others with whom you are psychologically dependent or connected) as a victim of an injustice, unfairness or disloyalty.

2.     Injury. You feel disrespected, discarded or ignored; there's a sense of insult, maybe even humiliation, along with injury – often psychological, at times also physical.

3.     Invasion. You perceive your freedom, autonomy, boundary and personal space as constricted, disrupted or violated; your identity and bodily and/or psychological integrity are being threatened or attacked.

4.     Intention. There is an energy and determination to do something about the above injustices, injuries and invasions; you are ready – reflexively and/or purposefully – to challenge the status quo.

So anger is a potential range of interpretations and feelings, from irritation and determination to outrage and fury.  Its breadth, depth, intensity and interactive potential are often forged by how one looks at the world through his or her "Four Angry 'I's." As I once wrote:

Anger!  That double-edged power source.  It's the high octane emotion for blazing performance and for igniting a legitimate grievance. Yet, when it's bottled up we smolder away; when we erupt it may engulf us. And, when we are the target of a volatile flamethrower, there will be scars. (Gorkin, Mark, “Anger or Aggression:  Confronting the Passionate Edge,” Legal Assistant Today, 1986).

Double-edged moral:  The helplessness and out of control quality of fear and loss obviously can easily turn to anger.  If it’s an anger that simply blames or attacks others as a way of hiding from your own self-vulnerability or building up yourself at another’s expense, it will likely be dysfunctional hostility or destructive rage.  However, if it’s a passionate anger or outrage – determined to address an injustice or legitimate grievance – or a “constructive discontent” – determined to break out of the conventional, dance with the oppositional and expand the circle of knowledge or realm of possibility – then “Picasso’s Paradox” and “Dewey’s Dialogue” will be honored.

d. Shame.  According to Webster’s, “shame is a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, a shortcoming, or impropriety in one’s own behavior or position or in the behavior or position of a closely associated person or group.”  Synonyms for shame include “disgrace” and “dishonor” while associated emotional states to the word “ashamed” include “humiliation,” “inferiority” and “unworthiness.”  It doesn’t take a Sigmund Freud to surmise that a person confronted with foreclosure, bankruptcy, or job loss is likely struggling with several of the above issues and emotions.  Perhaps the most dangerous result of shame occurs when the initial shock of being exposed or found out hardens into paralysis or self-imposed pariah status.

Also, one of the effects of an intense emotional state or crisis is that emotional defenses are often worn down or overwhelmed.  Think of defenses as your personal psychological levee system.  Just as the purpose of a levee (or canal) system is to prevent a river from overflowing its banks (or to safely contain the spill over), emotional defenses help us manage stormy emotions.  In crisis, a rush of painful feelings, like a swollen river, can suddenly flood and overwhelm your defenses and emotional equilibrium.  One reason crisis is so disorienting is that painful memories normally dormant are awakened during the crisis upheaval and these past yet still poignant emotions uncontrollably intrude upon or confound everyday consciousness.  (So in crisis you are fighting on two fronts:  combating present challenges while being confronted with past wounds.)  With loss of control and a sense of helplessness seemingly intrinsic to crisis, shame is often one of those early childhood emotions dredged up in the crisis floodwaters.  And if not sufficiently grieved, chronic or childhood shame (or chronic or post-traumatic stress) often turns into negative energy that saps confidence, concentration and communicational abilities and eventually erodes or destabilizes a psychological levee system.  Now defenses may be breached; underlying emotions start seeping through the cracks and if the levee is not reinforced eventually rush out, often with destructive consequences.

Double-edged moral:  Because of the dicey conditions noted above, a feeling of shame when handled properly can again provide opportunity in a time of breakdown.  If you are laid low, feeling “demoted” or “disgraced” (synonyms from Roget’s Thesaurus’ for “humiliation”), you may only have energy and esteem for survival retreat.  However, retreat allows time to seek untapped resources that may facilitate your recovery and rejuvenation. Now the anger behind the shaming experience can be channeled into appropriate aggression and/or ambition, maybe into affiliation, that is, developing supportive allies.  So a tactical, shame-based retreat may actually allow you to fight again.  And successfully resolving crisis or even simply adapting to new conditions often means that you have cleaned out some of the past emotional detritus that was stirred during this decisive juncture.  You have lightened your emotional baggage and have strengthened your emotional muscles for the next turning point convergence.

e. Hope.  Years back I came across a definition of “hopelessness” by a psychiatrist, Jerome Frank, which provided an indelible image:  “An inability to imagine a tolerable future.”  And the link between this construct and the absence of motivation, a sense of inertia or a state of despair seemed pretty obvious.  Clearly, “hope” or “desire accompanied with expectation of obtaining what is desired or a belief that it is obtainable” or to be “a person who aspires hopefully to become or achieve something,” (Webster’s) are vital components of living through and learning from crisis.   Clearly, a sustained effort to grapple with the inner demons and outer dragons invariably encountered on the double-edged creative crisis path requires energy and motivation, flexibility and focus.

Yet hope can also be seductive, feeding magical fantasies, for example, by putting all your hopes in one person, a “savior,” or in the supposed “perfect mate” or hoping beyond hope for the only one acceptable outcome or position.  For as we’ve seen, having the courage to see things as hopeless, that is, to hit bottom or to experience despair, is often required for finally letting go and confronting present meaninglessness or a sense of future futility.  Yet this emptiness, as when an artist stares at a blank canvas, means that your present is concentrated on that canvas (or blank screen, for us writers).  There’s a precious opportunity, that proverbial “decisive moment” to experiment and explore previously unimagined possibilities.

Double-edged moral:  Individuals who can both embrace hope yet not cling tightly, or move ahead despite not feeling particularly hopeful or even when feeling lost are the people marching to their own inner drum. (Will we now start saying these folks have an “Inner GPS?”)  For example, a personal mantra – “I don’t know where I’m going…I just think I know how to get there” – means the journey is just as important as the conventionally valued destination or endpoint.  The paradoxically inclined also understand the “stirring and shocking” interplay of hazardous conflict with purpose and possibility.  The acclaimed 20th century novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, expressed this double-edged notion quite eloquently:

            The test of a first-rate intellect is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same    time and still retain the ability to function.  For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be       determined to make them otherwise

To rebound you may need to hit bottom:  sometimes being bereft of hope is the first step in making “them otherwise.”  And this is not simply a modern insight.  Surely, the Greek myth related to the Pandora’s Box is instructive.  Once opened all the painful furies are unleashed. However, what is the last compelling source to emerge from the box?  Hope springs eternal!

FLASH Forward to a Funeral

Here’s a first-rate, “aha” problem-solving moment (“Picasso’s Paradox”) that helped an entity of the federal government work through a change and conflict process that was generating palpable tension and mistrust between employees and management (setting the stage for “Dewey’s Dialogue”).  The example, of course, is nowhere near the scope of the systemic and structural conflict of the current global financial and credit meltdown.  Nonetheless, this hazardous scenario provides a conceivable human and organizational scale for vividly illustrating both the “danger” of crisis as well as the paradoxical “opportunity” for new and imaginative individual and community adaptations.  Let’s put “The FLASH of Grief” into action.

In the early ‘90s, I was consulting with a federal court that was automating their record keeping process.  As I recall, management had not solicited much input from employees directly impacted by the technical changes, especially involving a key administrative form.  The employees were not just anxious about an uncertain future but were also angry at being bypassed in the decision-making and implementation process.  In the employees’ minds their professional status and experience were being ignored or discounted.  And not surprisingly, there was passive group resistance to the change.  People were reverting back to the old form and former process.

Memos and motivational exhortations were having minimal effect when an epiphany began crystallize.  In a meeting with top management, I noted that we missed the boat on the front end of implementation, but believed we could still get back on.  However, management had to stop simply defining employee behavior as resistance to change.  Court leaders needed to appreciate and truly understand the employee’s sense of loss of control and even a loss of identity, especially for those most directly impacted by the change.  We needed to grasp the reality that a new learning curve often generates anxiety and, depending on the circumstances surrounding the change, perhaps even a diminished sense of self-confidence and competence.  And, of course, not being consulted on the nature of the change process only enhanced the feeling of being organizational pawns, and disrespected ones at that.  I believe the employees’ emotional responses and subsequent behaviors are analogous to the involved and intense reaction to the death of a loved one, the breakup of a once close relationship and the loss of a cherished belief (or even a fantasy, such as management wanting input from professionals in the trenches).  (Might one say they were having a Grief FLASH?) 

Recognizing that the employees were actually grieving ignited my aha-like FLASH of Grief” and a starting point was possible:   "Let's have a forms funeral."  (Going way beyond the box…obviously I now was thinking “out of the coffin!”)  Suddenly, we had a forum in which a common reality could be acknowledged and emotional intensity be shared.  And exaggerating the circumstances proved a lot more creative and productive than an all too familiar gripe session.  Employees now had a paradoxical public forum for:  a) mourning the loss of the old data processing system, b) expressing frustration with management's unilateral decision-making process and c) articulating concerns about the upcoming changes.  Steps to rebuilding trust required management actually listening to criticism, acknowledging mistakes had been made and not punishing people for speaking their minds.  This group grieving enabled folks to gradually and more objectively recognize the limitations of the old and the productive potential of the new.  Employees were now willing to give the new system a chance to succeed, and all levels in the organization realized that the whole had to be part of the problem and part of the solution.

In summary, initial common ground was forged when a symbolic funeral was able to be both an arena for giving and accepting genuine feedback and a forum for reaching closure.  The conceptual playing field shifted from employees resisting mandated top-down procedures and memos to the need for bottom-up expression of grief and appropriate articulation of grievance.  This diagnostic and strategic reframe laid the groundwork for management taking responsibility for missteps and management-employee dialogue and consensus.  And by creatively thinking and acting out of the box-coffin, a more cohesive and responsive Organizational Phoenix rose from the administrative ashes of unilateral decision-making and dysfunctional struggle.

Closing Summary

Three crisis frameworks – semantic, symbolic and strategic – have been outlined to dispel the notion of crisis as a reflexive disaster and more a decisive decision point that reveals the potential interplay of “danger” and “opportunity.”  To transform this three-fold framework into a “turning point” intervention power tool requires understanding and applying three concepts integral to crisis and creativity:  “Picasso’s Paradox,” “Dewey’s Dialogue” and “The FLASH of Grief” (Fear, Loss,  Anger, Shame and Hope).  Finally, a case vignette illustrates how conflict and tension (“Dewey’s Dialogue”) between management and employees sets the stage for imaginative conceptualization (“Picasso’s Paradox”) along with some heartfelt, open and outrageous problem-solving (“The FLASH of Grief”).  Transforming a crisis experience into mutual sharing, acknowledging mistakes and collaborative-creative processing enabled supposed antagonists to bridge the communication and cooperation divide. 

Reader's Response:

Merger Wedding

Re: Stress Doc Article:  Transforming Crisis "Danger" into Dynamic "Opportunity"

A forms funeral……excellent. 

I worked at an institution that merged the outpatient and inpatient surgery staff.  It created quite a stir.  Staff in the outpatient area had not had to work weekends or take call.  With the merger of the 2 staff groups it became a requirement, along with more overtime, etc.  It wasn’t going very well.  Aside from the additional training needs having to be met the administration wanted to make the transition as smooth as possible.  So we had a wedding.

We used one of our inservice times, reserved the auditorium, ordered a big cake and ‘married’ a bride from inpatient to a groom from outpatient.  The Managers and Clinical Leaders were the parents of the couple. Staff from both areas were ‘chosen’ as groomsmen and bridesmaids. 

The person acting as the minister made our day.  With a southern accent and an excellent homily we were able to share a few minutes of humor.  At the end the bride threw a bouquet of surgical sponges (clean) out to the audience.  

I appreciated the newsletter, It couldn’t come at a better time.


Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is a psychotherapist and "Motivational Humorist" whose Interactive Keynotes and Kickoffs draw wide and "amazing" acclaim -- from Fortune 100s and Federal Agencies to around the world with Celebrity Cruise Lines.   An OD/Team Building Consultant, Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Also, the Doc is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat."  See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs, call or email the "Stress Doc":  301-946-0865 or stressdoc@aol.com .  And to view web video highlights of a Stress Doc Keynote, go to http://www.stressdoc.com/media_downloads.htm

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2008
Shrink Rap™ Productions