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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™


APR 2010, No. I, Sec. II

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


Main Essay:

Career Disruption Stress or Surviving "The Jack Benny Dilemma": 
When It Really Is "Your Money or Your Life" -- Part I

This week I was the keynote speaker at the Forty Plus annual dinner (www.40plus-dc.org/), a volunteer-based, Washington, DC, career transition/support group.  In general, members are white collar types, e.g., federal employees, managers, IT professionals, academics, even some entrepreneurs, who are "in between jobs."  With only 20 minutes of speaking time, my subject was definitely apt, both for the attendees and for me -- "Letting Go."

From a "psycho-semantic" perspective, "letting go" involves more than just physically "dropping the rope."

Consider these Three Psycho-Social Meanings-Manifestations of "Letting Go":
1.  Emotional Acceptance and Exploration.  Typically, it signifies cognitive-emotional acceptance that a desired position or person, outcome or dream is not going to materialize or not going to play out as you had hoped.  And after a period of emotional catharsis if not soul searching, sometimes encouraged by venting to a third party, other times facilitated by confronting an antagonist, one is prepared to consider a new line of thinking or a different course of action.

2.  Personal Defeat and Defensiveness.  Of course, when we interpret having to "let go" as a personal diminishment or defeat, that is, not just a loss of position or property but also as a confounding or humiliating loss of identity, power and prestige along with a loss of personal security or sense of control then, not surprisingly, people will hold on.  Some will cling even if holding on is now holding them back or having them stuck in a hole.  Remember, harboring a feeling of injury or victimhood may not just leave a bitter taste in the mouth…it may lead to fulminations.   An inability to let go often sets the stage for chronic anger and resentment transmuting into holier than thou self-righteousness.

3.  Precursor to Losing Control.  Finally, for people not comfortable with facing and sorting out strong emotions or for folks having a low "out of control" threshold there's a palpable fear about letting go (and engaging with their vulnerability):  once the floodgates are open, you will be inundated by and may ultimately drown in those unstoppable, convulsing waves of emotion.

Four "R"s and Six "F"s:  Letters for Letting Go

The time was right to share "The Vital Lesson of the Four 'R's":  If no matter what you do or how hard you try Results, Rewards, Recognition and/or Relief are not forthcoming an you can't say "no" or won't "let go," trouble awaits…The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair.  That is, if you have invested so much time, money and ego in one right person or position, and you can't step back -- not giving up in defeat, but letting go to introduce some novelty and gain a new perspective -- then you are setting in motion the "erosive spiral," my phrase for the burnout process.  Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away!

During my preparation, I had decided on a Yin-Yang approach, opening with the poignant "Vital Lesson of the Four 'R's" then presenting "The Six 'F's for Productively Managing Loss and Change," before shifting into a more light-hearted gear.  (Okay, I confess:  I'm a charter member of the new Washington, DC-based AA group -- "Acronyms Anonymous.")  The "Six 'F's" are psychosocial emotions, issues and tasks that challenge an individual to grapple with:  a) the loss of the familiar, b) an uncertain future, c) a loss of face, d) regaining focus, especially focused aggression, e) getting good feedback by developing a "TLC" relationship:  someone who can provide "Tender Loving Criticism" and "Tough Loving Care," and f) having faith that if you do your "headwork, heartwork and homework" you will develop the cognitive-emotional muscles to withstand this transitional tempest, as well as to realize the opportunity in seemingly dangerous change and conflict.  (Email stressdoc@aol.com for an elaboration of "The Six 'F's.")

The audience resonated with these emotional tasks and touchstones.  But it was reciting some poetic lines penned years ago regarding the connections between grief and growth and the natural and spiritual worlds that enveloped the hotel room in a poignant and pregnant shroud of meditative silence:  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.

The Old Man and the M-word

Having covered the poignant, I envisioned the last third of the program stimulating the playful.  (To be shared in a future essay.)  But in between came a "Letting Go" story that featured both pain and some wordplay.  My dad had been a salesman employed twenty years by the same company in New York's "fashion industry."  Okay, let's get real; he worked in the "Garment Center" selling the interlining for women's dresses for a large manufacturer/distributor.  It was a rough world, but as an aggressive Type A New Yorka, he was doing pretty well.  His loyal clientele gave him a freedom to operate fairly independently within the large company. 

Seemingly, he had made peace with this rough trade.   However, over a period of several years, he had been denying an even tougher piece of reality:  organized crime was increasingly taking over my father's place of work.  Then one day reality punched him in the gut:  he was told if he wanted to continue working for David B. Carmel & Co., he would have to report to Tommy D.  And suddenly my father was in a major existential-financial crisis.  (Which brings us to the Jack Benny classic mentioned in the title?  Jack is being held up at gun point, and is challenged, "Your money or your life!"  His stage persona is notoriously frugal.  Jack starts pondering his options; of course, he's not planning an escape or trying to figure out how to disarm the robber.  No, Jack is agonizing over which is more distressful - parting with his money or losing his life.  When brusquely told to hurry up, Jack's plaintive reply:  "I'm thinking.  I'm thinking.")

Of course, my father's "trial and terror" could not be summed up in a punchline.  I can vaguely recall my father lying on the couch, the tension written large on his face and body.  I sometimes feared he might kill himself or even someone else.  Fueling his sense of helplessness, my father was resisting his typical coping mechanism when under acute interpersonal duress:  once feeling provoked, almost reflexively he would move into an aggressive, bordering on the physical, "in your face" confrontation with a perceived adversary.  Fortunately, discretion and survival instincts were the better part of financial angst, inflamed anger and wounded pride.  He decided that a relationship with Tommy D was even more frightening than walking away from a long-time job and paycheck.

Not only was he enraged but, having two kids to support, he was also scared.  The anxiety pushed him to take a position at another large manufacturing company.  Very quickly he felt stifled by the bureaucratic regimen and control.  And two months later he walked away from the security.  Job independence and self-control were now the motivational drivers.

Despite the anxiety, now he really researched job options, and finally decided to be the lone rep for "Eli," an older man who owned his own relatively small interlining warehouse.  Eli was a Garment Center caricature; an "Old World" aggressive-suspicious-shrewd business owner; the arguments between him and my father were legendary:  each one feared being ripped off by the other.  Eli came up to my father's chest, which was probably a good thing or I believe my father might have followed through on his threats to "kill that SOB."  So the price of freedom was the many battles with Eli.  (Not surprisingly, my father had a lot of unfinished anger/issues with his often aloof immigrant father who, like Eli, was a short, stubborn, aggressive barrel-chested individual.  And both elder men were quick to challenge my father's loyalty.)  And though Eli often drove my father "crazy," in my family, craziness we can deal with, the Mafia is another story.

Ultimately, Eli and my father did not kill or run one another off.  In fact, my father scaled new financial heights those last dozen or so years in that rep position.

Finally, the moral of the story:  Many of us have been through reorganization or worse -- company downsizing.  And I especially dislike the demeaning label, "rightsizing."  But my father's crisis point called for new terminology - "frightsizing!"  Nonetheless, by truly grappling with the intense emotions, especially the sense of unfairness and his paralyzing rage, my father was able to walk away, not once but twice.  He escaped the Mafia trap and then had the courage to listen to his gut.  He let go of the safe job and took time to research carefully other possibilities.  And he eventually paved a new path!  Who knew my father was a devotee of French-Algerian Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher, Albert Camus:

Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one [or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.

Surely, words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
 



"Letting Go" and Transforming Your Intimate FOE:  Fear of Exposure -- Part II

Part I of this two-part essay focused on my format for illustrating the concept of "Letting Go" during a 20-minute after dinner keynote for the career transition/support group, Forty Plus.  [Email stressdoc@aol.com for this essay.]  I reviewed both the dynamics and dangers of not being able to "let go":  "if you have invested so much time, money and ego in one right person or position, and you can't step back and gain a new perspective…then you are setting in motion the 'erosive spiral,' that is, the groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair, my phrase for the burnout process."

I also outlined six key psycho-social tasks and tools for "Managing Loss and Change."  And finally, the essay fleshed out "Three Psycho-Social Meanings-Manifestations of "Letting Go":

1.  Emotional Acceptance and Open-Mindedness. 
Typically, it signifies cognitive-emotional acceptance that a desired position or person, objective or dream is not going to materialize or not going to play out as you had hoped.  You are no longer trying to control or compel another person or a particular outcome.  And after a period of emotional catharsis if not soul searching, sometimes encouraged by venting to a third party, other times facilitated by confronting an antagonist, one is prepared to consider a new line of thinking or a different course of action.

2.  Personal Defeat and Defensiveness.  For many, "letting go" is a personal loss, for example, a loss of position or property as well as a confounding or humiliating loss of identity, power and prestige.  When experiencing a loss of personal security or sense of control, not surprisingly, people will hold on.  Some will cling even if holding on is now holding them back or having them stuck in a hole.  Remember, harboring a feeling of injury or victimhood may not just leave a bitter taste in the mouth.   An inability to let go often sets the stage for chronic anger and resentment transmuting into holier than thou self-righteousness.

3.  Precursor to Losing Control.  Finally, for people not comfortable with facing and sorting out strong emotions or for folks having a low "out of control" threshold there's a palpable fear about letting go (and engaging with their vulnerability):  once the floodgates are open, they will be inundated by and may ultimately drown in those unstoppable, convulsing waves of emotion.

And the remainder of the first article (and a story shared with dinner guests) focused on a dangerous turn of events in my father's mid-career path - organized crime came pounding on the door of his place of work.  He was forced to look elsewhere for employment; a dramatic instance of corporate reorganization or what I aptly called "frightsizing!"

Confronting Your Intimate FOE:  Concept and Exercise

Examining the above "letting go" list, I believe one more dynamic deserves our attention:

4.  Willingness to Risk, Reveal and Explore.  In contrast to #3 above, our final conception of "letting go" means giving up a significant degree of order or control, but without feeling helplessly "out of control."  In fact, this degree of freedom is usually predicated upon a basic feeling of safety and sufficient trust, if not a sense of confidence and competence.  This inner strength is often built on trial and error learning.  In fact, a key ingredient in this exploratory position is a willingness to be less than perfect and to also appear awkward, be wrong or even "fail."  Of course, especially when faced with significant uncertainty, you may "aware-ily" jump in, that is, you are taking a risk, with both awareness and some wariness…but not enough to hold you back.  And sometimes, when you really have that sense of relaxed attention and flexible focus, letting go means "going with your own energy and the group flow."

Actually, the final third of the after-dinner presentation in surprising fashion brought to life the notion of "letting go" as a willingness to take a social risk.  More specifically, I challenged the attendees to let down a professional persona and share their imperfect humanity through my four word group exercise:  "Share an Embarrassing Moment!"

The tables of eight seemed to spontaneously divide into two or three clusters.  After the initial surprise and silence, the room quickly was abuzz with energy, intimate huddling and charged body language, dramatic gestures, along with frequent bursts of laughter.  One story seemingly inspired another:  "That was good, now let me tell you about the time…"

I suspect the group was ready to engage quickly with the exercise because small group problem solving is a staple of the Forty Plus experience, though non-Forty Plus members were also in attendance.  Also, a number of people had heard me before; they knew to expect the quirky and unexpected when the Stress Doc presents.  Finally, the opening material on the dangers of not "letting go" and dealing with loss and change created a poignant tension in the room…People were ready to break it.

Benefits of Confronting Your Intimate FOE

Now, consider these "Five Benefits of Transforming Fear of Exposure into the Fun of Embarrassment":

1.  Engage in Rapid and Risky, Intimate and Mutual Sharing.  Revealing an embarrassing moment quickly affirms our mutual humanity, despite age and gender, ethnic and cultural differences, etc.  Letting down, if not letting go of, your "professional" or "have it all together" mask often helps others reach out to you and frees them to also risk sharing.

2.  Accept Our Imperfections.  Such group sharing, especially with an empathic audience, helps people realize they are not uniquely awkward, dumb, clueless, etc.  You are with folks who not only have "walked in your shoes," but likely have had similar bunions.  And the sharing of flaws and foibles often builds a bridge between humanity and humor.  As the great disability pioneer and humanitarian, Helen Keller noted:  The world is so full of care and sorrow it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks.

3.  Embellish Your Story.  During post-exercise analysis, participants frequently confirm that once into the story-telling, it was not hard to add if not exaggerate details, making the experience a bit larger than life.  Memory is not absolute or fixed; the more we share a story, especially a retelling that allows for a manageable level of emotional catharsis, the greater the potential for perceiving the past from a renewed, less burdensome perspective.  Once half empty, that proverbial looking glass may become half full.

4.  Affirm Courage and Mastery.  Actually, such public revelation helps make the incident in hindsight seem smaller, less scary or "embarrassing."  By seeing some humor in the situation or not taking the awkward moment personally - perhaps finally realizing there were elements out of your control - you are confirming psychiatrist Ernst Kris' sage observation:  "What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at."  And as the Stress Doc inverted:  "What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!"

5.  Be an Accessible, Self-Effacing and Spirited Leader.  The best leaders understand that you don't only command by dazzling people from the mountaintop; coming back down to earth, sharing your flaws and foibles, not only confirms your humanity and courage but makes you an individual people both can relate to and respect.  And sharing a laugh at your own expense may also prove a wise and confident investment.  It's a feisty strategy for deflecting those critical slings and arrows:  "Ha, I can poke fun of myself a lot better than you ever can!"

Closing Summary

In closing, four key meanings-manifestations of "letting go" have been presented.  The first three initially appeared in Part I of this two-part series, and are summarized above:  1) Emotional Acceptance and Open-Mindedness, 2) Personal Defeat and Defensiveness, and 3) Precursor to Losing Control.  And the final usage is the focus of this essay - 4) Willingness to Risk, Reveal and Explore.  And the latter was illustrated by the small group exercise:  "Share an Embarrassing Moment" along with five benefits resulting from such an exchange:  1) Engage in Rapid and Risky, Intimate and Mutual Sharing, 2) Accept our Imperfections, 3) Embellish Your Story, 4) Affirm Courage and Mastery, 5) Be an Accessible, Self-Effacing and Spirited Leader.  Surely, learning to courageously and maturely "let go" will enhance personal freedom, build interpersonal bridges and help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is a one-of-a-kind "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst."  The "Doc" is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs.  The "Stress Doc" is also a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits.  And he is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™.  Mark is an Adjunct Professor at Northern VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor" programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions and Brigades, at Ft. Hood, Texas and Ft. Leonard Wood, MO.  A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger.  See his award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 301-875-2567.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2010

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