Wellness and Personal Development

Getting Beyond the Box: Part II -- Face Your FOE and Flow from the Inside Out

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

Successful policies, programs and procedures are often time-tested, if not timeworn, techniques for keeping folks stifled and the status quo exalted. However, unconventional thinking and exploring involves more than discovering the elusive key to some mysterious trap door, or simply breaking down the same. Opening up new doors and windows of opportunity often starts by recognizing self-imposed, shame-based constrictions accompanied by a fear of failure. A second key catalyst for breaking out thinking is learning to ebb and flow creatively with your mood states. And once more free with inner space travel, you can adroitly maneuver from the inside out and transform external energy into problem-solving synergy. Here are the three final strategies for getting beyond the box:

1a. Confront Your Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure (Internal Variety). Actually, mid-forties anguish involved me getting into the box, that is, grappling with a global fear of technology and, more specifically, a fear of losing my "computer virginity." (I was still having a fling with a fifteen year-old -- my Smith-Corona electric typewriter.) These dysfunctional roots go back to childhood: classic math phobia. Two of the more vivid memories are the shame of having my test score of "0" announced to the entire fifth grade class and foregoing shop class for weekly remedial mathematics in seventh grade. (The only other students having this mandatory remediation were from the "slower" classes.)

With hindsight, the true culprits for my academic underachievement were some form of chronic high anxiety, if not some borderline childhood depression. The resulting cognitive immaturity was evidenced by a significantly impaired capacity for sustained concentration and retention involving analytical and logical tasks. Lack of confidence and learned helplessness were the final bars for this cognitive "prisoner of childhood." (See Judith Miller's excellent work, The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, formerly main titled, The Prisoner of Childhood.)

Making it through a graduate statistics class (this was my "Survivor" experience; getting past basic training was almost a breeze by comparison; okay, as a Jew, being tear-gassed in a gas chamber created some existential angst). But truly getting beyond my technology-related mental block required some inadvertent group shaming almost two decades later. The catalyst was hanging out in a support group for artists. Many of these folks were exploring computer graphics. Each week as they brought in their digital designs the digital divide was becoming a chasm. The time and technology warp kept expanding. It was the early '90s, but I felt like a dinosaur trapped in some long gone paleontological era. (Yet, also knocking on my psychic door were late 20th century technological reality and some healthy competitive feelings.)

Fortunately, sometimes a little shame can work wonders. Clearly, deep-seated phobic patterns and fear of renewed humiliation rather than any objective computer learning barriers were the real source of this imprisonment. To grow out of my box, not to stagnate professionally and artistically, there was no alternative to walking into the old demons' den. But now, no longer shrouded in shameful secrecy nor paralyzed by fear, I did not have to walk alone. At the end of a stress workshop, an out of work computer consultant approached me about a personal matter. Fortunately, the opportunity was obvious and in a matter of minutes she and I negotiated a "be gentle with this neurotic neophyte when it comes to computers" coaching relationship. Miss Bytetingale held my hand as we bought the PC; she also installed the system and even soothed some psychic learning startup wounds. Initially, we met two or three times/week. Doubtless, the money spent on coaching was far less than the anticipated therapy fees for treating the primitive brain of a dysfunctional dinosaur.

1b. Confront Your Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure (External Variety). Of course, your FOE isn't only inside your head. With terrorism unleashed -- from guided missile airplanes to floating anthrax spores -- there are objective, external reasons to be fearful. Some will rationalize retreating into an even tighter fortress (forget about a box). Alas, such a "comfort zone" is likely to become more constricting than comfortable when the ever-present motive is the illusion of always being in control.

Before sealing that symbolic vault door, consider the distinction between "what's possible?" and "what's probable?" Prior to the Tuesday, 9-11 terrorist attack, I had made mid-September plans to visit my family in New York City for the Jewish holidays. Then the horror descended. Normally, I AMTRAK to the Big Apple. With the reports of bomb scares at Penn Station Thursday night (the possible) I called my folks and asked them to listen to the news. They would call me Friday morning in the event of an actual bomb attack or genuine threat (the probable). With no cautionary word from the home front, I was homeward bound.

Sure I had some butterflies. Bur if we instinctively allow whatever is "possible" to rule our thinking and actions then life can truly become contaminated by primal fears, terrorists or no terrorists. Of course, those who have experienced previous trauma or abuse will have to grapple with both internal and external FOEs. But all it takes is a vividly anxious imagination; then, almost any dire or devious outcome is conceivable. Assessing the "probable," which may involve both rational calculation and gut intuition, strengthens a trust in our inner compass and enhances our degrees of freedom. Not to mention the unexpected perks: first, because of the death of pasengers, when I purchased my ticket, the AMTRAK ticket agent practically hugged and kissed (he was cute ;-); second, I just about had a whole car to myself.

To be honest, the entire trip wasn't entirely smooth sailing. There was a dicey moment at Penn Station. I had just boarded the subway to Queens, when the engineer barks out the prophetic opening line, "Now don't panic..." followed by some mundane announcement, unrelated to safety issues. Of course, people were turning ghastly pale from his opening remarks. Don't panic! Fortunately, the survivor spirit is alive and well in the New York subway ridership. A bunch of us stormed the lead car and beat the crap out of that jerk. Okay, the last sentence was only a fantasy. Hey, sometimes it can be enjoyable contemplating a "possible" scenario, especially when you aren't the helpless pawn.

So despite that high adrenaline moment, by quickly following the "what's probable?" path, some stress inoculation resulted (before withdrawal and bunker coping patterns set in) by approaching "Ground Zero." I feel less like a stalking victim of the Intimate FOEs.

Drawing upon these vignettes, some concluding strategic steps for overcoming your FOE and breaking out:

a) acknowledge past phobic patterns, depression and sources of shame; consider some therapy if these past emotions/conditions are seemingly subconsciously locked away (yet another box to break out of) while still ruling conscious choices,

b) associate with folks who might challenge your unthinking habits, anxieties and assumptions and may motivate you to explore or, if needed, will give you a push out of the box,

c) find a formal or informal coach to defuse the shame and anxiety and guide you through a learning curve of new concepts and problem solving skills,

d) in general, evaluate risky or dangerous situations though the rational-intuitive lens of "what's probable?" rather than the reflexive or reactive lens of "what's possible?" and

e) consider my risk-taking mantra: "Awareily jump in over your head"...then head for the old and new demons' den. Definitely some strategic steps for surviving these trying times.

2. Allow for Mood Swings. As observers of the subject of creativity have noted (e.g., see Kay Redfield Jamison's, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament) artistic individuals often ebb and flow between mania and melancholy. Now a hypomanic state may seem obvious: increased energy, daring, restlessness and even some enhanced cognitive capacity for rhyming and uncommon relating of words and ideas all support breaking out from a habitual or predictable mindset. But what of melancholy? Doesn't a depressed mood make you slow, lethargic, heavy and slug-like? Wouldn't such a dark state induce inertia more than the drive to innovate?

It's true, in the darkest depths of depression, paralysis and pessimism, if not paranoia, as the walls suffocatingly close in, commandeer the controls of the box. However, there are grades of depression. If we can begin to stick our head out of the black hole, then some paradoxically illuminating depressive energy can be channeled into liberating and enlightening grief. As the storied author, Herman Melville poetically observed: In these flashing revelations of grief's wonderful fire, we see all things as they are; and though, when the electric element is gone, the shadows once more descend, and the false outlines of objects again return; yet not with their former power to deceive.

Sometimes there is only energy for quiet meditation or for a walk in the woods, perhaps free associative scribbling in a journal or for a moment of prayer. Listening to our inner voice enables:

a) the sorting out of rage (and it's cover for helplessness and low self-esteem; rage turned inward often contributes to depression and self-destructive behavior) from passion (with it's conviction and determination to affirm a vital, empowered sense of self-in-the-world). Ultimately, a rage state has us narrowly focused and dependent; all our energy is tied up with "the other." It's not called "blind rage" for nothing, and

b) the process of "thrustration," a key aspect of creative insight and discovery. Thrustration occurs when you are torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration as you have not found nor connected key pieces of the puzzle engaging your being. This requires a capacity for frustration tolerance, for brooding, for letting go of simply willpowering an uncommon solution. This moody, quietly intense state of psychophysiological arousal turns on your brain's right hemisphere, enhances the vividness of dream imagery and momentarily stimulates emotive primary process thinking over logical or sequential processing.

Imagine this moody, brooding period as an on the edge incubation vacation. The purpose, of course, is to hatch a new perspective. And sometimes, this perspective is the courage and conviction to sustain the problem-solving brain storm. For example, let me share an early '90s struggle when my five year younger brother moved nearby in the DC area. An unspoken rivalry hovered like a cloud between us. I certainly was conscious of his obtaining a Ph.D. while I had bombed out on my doctoral dissertation. And his being more successful financially also weighed on my psyche. Add to this bad timing: my trepidation confronting the aforementioned computer phobia. Welcome to the brooding edge. In hindsight, I was on the verge of a major transitional period. Enduring big change, itself, exaggerates one's emotions and mood state. A week into my stormy incubation there was a sea change -- some light in the darkness and calm in the despair, then excitement and hope: my virgin status was history. (Of course, my break through didn't eradicate periodic bouts of performance anxiety.) All was captured in the ironical lyric, Double-Edged Depression:

Waves of sadness, raging river of fear

Whirlpooling madness till I disappear

Into the depths of primal pain...

Then again, no pain, no gain.

Depression, depression

Is it chemistry or confession?

Depression, depression

Dark side of perfection!

Climbing icy spires, dancing at the ledge

The phoenix only rises on the jagged edge

In a world of highs and lows...

Hey the cosmos ebbs and flows.

Depression, depression

It's electrifried obsession

Highflying depression

Exalted regression?

So I'm pumping iron and Prozac, too

What else can a real man do?

In a life of muted dreams...

How about a primal SCREAM?

Depression, depression

Even inner child rejection

Depression, depression

Hallelujah for creative expression!

(c) Mark Gorkin 1994

Shrink Rap Productions

Now I had the energy (along with coaching support) to continue my climb out of the computer box. And, prophetically, six months after writing this lyric, I threw off the psychic albatross of shame and failure by allowing my therapist to talk me into beginning a trial with Prozac. Talk about finally breaking out of the depression box.

In conclusion, we must risk moving out of our so-called comfort zone and incubate upon our "sturm und drang" in order to embrace philosopher Albert Camus' notion of the life-giving potential of loss and, even, death: 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.

Here are the Stress Doc's "Six Strategic 'F's for Mastering Loss and Change":

1) Familiar. Grapple with the anxiety, rage, hopelessness or sadness in letting go of the familiar or predictable past. Remember, sometimes your former niche of success now mostly has you stuck in the ditch of excess. There's a critical crossroad ahead,

2) Future. Clearly the horizon appears cloudy and threatening, lacking direction and clarity. Just because your past or traditional roles and responsibilities may be receding doesn't mean you can't transfer your experience and skills into new challenging arenas.

3) Face. Some loss of self esteem and self-worth is all too common, especially when our life puzzle has been broken up other than by one's own hand. Shame, humiliation guilt, diminished confidence are frequent early traveling partners on a profound transitional journey,

4) Focus. If you can honestly grapple and grieve the first three "F"s, then you are engaged in a productive brooding, if not magical incubation, process. At minimum, you will affirm, "I may not like the cards that I've been dealt, but how do I make the best of my reality right now." And you'll likely start hatching a new perspective with, if not crystal clear targets, then an intuitive, crystal ball enlightenment. Suddenly this Stress Doc mantra starts resonating: "I don't know where I'm going...I just think I know how to get there!"

5) Feedback. Now you can share new insights or plans with others. Getting input will help sort out the wheat from the chaff. Or, some TLC (what I call, "tender loving criticism" and "tough loving care") may challenge you to expand or simplify the complexity of the problem engaged. In times of rapid or daunting change, trustworthy feedback helps us remember who we are; that our basic, core self remains intact despite being shaken by unsettling forces.

6) Faith. Having the courage to grapple with these "F"s now yields a strength to understand what in your present life rests in your control and what lies beyond. Some will call on a transcendent source of faith: a higher power, whether a religious or spiritual force or the group synergy of a team, family or some communal entity. (For example, 12-step groups provide both sources -- turning over one's helplessness to God and, one day at a time, being supported in new beliefs and behaviors by the higher power of collective consciousness and group sharing.)

3. Be Acutely Responsive to Your Environment. As a conference speaker, one is frequently challenged to move outside the box; often it's the "lunch" box. After a big meal, participants either halfheartedly focus on the luncheon speaker or drowsily meander into the next workshop room. The quandary: how to quickly engage the attentionally-challenged masses? First rule, don't fight the ebb tide. Start slow, deliver a surprising blow...now, go with the flow! Let me get practical. Initially, I ask the group if I'm the only person who feels sleepy or has a big meal energy dip or just post-lunch lethargy? The sighs and nodding heads mean we've connected. People are willing to learn my brief relaxation/meditation exercise. They close their eyes, assume a relaxed posture, take a couple of deep breaths. Then folks are directed to extend their arms fully in front of them. They also wiggle their fingers, better to connect with the karmic energy in the universe. (I also remind them to watch where they wiggle those digits. HR policies on inappropriate touching are still in effect.;-) Now I explain how to responsively repeat after me a homegrown mantra: "N-A-P, N-A-P, N-A-P." And suddenly I playfully, yet aggressively, declare: "Okay, now that you've had your power nap, no sleeping. Everybody pays attention."

The laughter is the energetic icing on the low-fat oat bran muffin. Having folks do a series of gentle, rhythmic, physical movements, then be hit with a clever surprise is like providing the psyche and soma a soothing and stimulating massage. Perhaps we can call this group mind-body judo move a hypnohumor manipulation (I'm already the "Online Psychohumorist" (TM); why not add Hypnohumorist to my job titles.) Whatever we call it, the exchange uses liberating laughter to get the speaker and audience out of the lethargy lunch box.

Conceiving through Humor

Sometimes humor is needed just to get a shot at doing a program. In the mid-'80s, just as the AIDs crisis was becoming part of our national consciousness (as Anthrax is today) a legal administrator from a litigation law firm called. She wanted to know if I could do a stress workshop for thirty trial attorneys. Before I could assure her on the wisdom of her selection, she delivered a stern warning: The previous year's retreat facilitator had a "let it all hang out" approach. Big surprise, the retreat turned into a rout. Ms. Administrator let me know that with such a repeat performance her derriere was on the line with the Executive Committee. Affirming my experience and success was having little effect upon her state of hypervigilance. Frustration was building, being logical proved ineffectual, then (after a mini thrustration-incubation process)...the Aha! humor moment: "I know what you want. You want to make sure these legal warriors don't kill one another off. You want a workshop on...How to Practice Safe Stress!"

Burst out laughter immediately ensued. Someone who could rapidly inject pointed yet good-natured humor likely wouldn't be so fanatical. Her anxiety box was broken, and she had the retreat leader candidate. Alas, the Executive Committee was still in their control box. When we finally reconnected, the administrator's disappointing sigh spoke volumes. Management decided not just to play it "safe" but to practice abstinence: the upcoming retreat was to be on computer training.

In both examples, recognizing people's mood state -- lethargy and anxiety -- along with the immediate situational (post-lunch) context or the hovering national crisis consciousness (AIDS epidemic) challenged me to come up with a response that incorporated the seemingly disparate elements. As 19th century pioneering educator John Dewy observed: Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving...Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

Both the sudden surprising relaxation exercise and the witty phone rejoinder evoked laughter and a willingness to follow or consider my lead. As I once penned in the essay, "On Becoming a Psychohumorist": "People are more open to a serious message when it's gift-wrapped with humor." Modeling playfulness as well as conviction and cognitive flexibility encourages people to expand their energy and optimism, venture beyond the routine, be resilient after a setback and confront those inner and outer barriers keeping them boxed in.

In closing this two-part series, three more beyond the box strategies have been illustrated: 4) Confront Your Intimate FOE, 5) Allow for Mood Swings and 6) Be Acutely Responsive to Your Environment. Integrating these three strategies with the "lean and keen" maneuvers in Part I -- 1) Embrace Contradiction, 2) Reframe the Content and Context and 3) Find the Pass in the Impasse -- will conceptually liberate you and your clients or customers or family and friends and will help us all...Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is an internationally recognized speaker and syndicated writer on stress, anger management, reorganizational change, team building and HUMOR! The Doc was recently featured on CBS TV's Newspath segment -- Workplace Violence -- and in Biography Magazine. He is America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ leading a weekly chat group for AOL/Digital City -- http://www.digitalcity.com/washington/stressdr . Check out his USA Today Online "HotSite" - www.stressdoc.com Stress Doc homepage. For more info, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662.




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