On the first weekend in March – mostly sunny weather, briskly seasonal temperatures without the customary roaring and “marching in” mountain winds – we had our first Busy Women’s Retreat at the serene, scenic Blue Mountain Retreat Center, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Maryland (near Harpers Ferry, WV). The Blue Mountain Retreat Center is surrounded by woods on 27 acres, just one mile uphill from the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. About 1.5 hours from the Washington, DC Beltway, the Retreat Center makes an ideal place to relax, release and revive!
A dozen women, ages ranging perhaps from the late 20s to the 50s, participated in a mind-body mix of activities from Friday evening to Sunday noon. (I was the only male instructor; more shortly.) The opening night program menu featured cognition expanding word association as well as an insightful yet playful “getting to know you” by conjuring up paradoxical “nicknames” warm-up exercise. (For example, one high energy and animated – okay, sometimes forever running around – yet increasingly at peace with life’s unpredictable twists and turns woman garnered the nickname, “Graceful Ping Pong,” which I later proposed shortening to “Graceful Pong.”)
On Saturday, after the “organic” breakfast came early morning yoga, followed by poignant and purposeful engagement with “stress, conflict and change” from mid-morning to lunch. The afternoon was filled with arts activities culminating in evening belly dancing – a mix of lessons but mostly group giggles and gyrations. The afternoon and evening was for unwinding, socializing, laughing with your peers, and joyfully de-stressing! Sunday morning continued with mind-body meditation and Tai Chi, and/or time for walking along the Potomac River, with fast-moving, white-capped water crashing into and circumnavigating exposed small boulders on one side of the towpath, bare-limbed gently sloping foothills on the other. (Actually, I got in my head clearing walk on Friday afternoon.) And finally, by Sunday noon…wrapping up, letting go and sharing a heartfelt goodbye. (Oh, yes, during breaks in the schedule, massage appointments were available with a woman masseuse.) Everyone seemed to love the experience – a “magical mix” of purpose, passion and play.There was considerable talk of meeting again the following year.
Before a number of you male readers send those envious e-mails, after Saturday lunch, I said my goodbyes. Stress Doc programming services were no longer needed; the owner of the retreat center and I agreed (okay, my agreement was tinged with a touch of regret) that my presence would likely inhibit the “girls night out” group dynamics. As we’ll see, learning to “let go” is a good thing!
Embracing and Letting Go of Change and Conflict
However, I do have a firsthand retreat account to share: about leading and facilitating the Saturday morning program on “Transforming Stress, Change and Conflict into Passion Power.” We opened with a “signs of transition stress” warm-up that captures my goal of helping participants become more FIT – by having “Fun,” engaging in “Interactive” exercises, and by being “Thought-Provoking.” It’s called a “Three ‘B’ Stress Barometer” small group discussion exercise: “How do your Brain, Body and Behavior let you know when you are under more stress than usual?” After the group report back and accompanying leader-audience banter, we built a conceptual bridge between stress/burnout and an inability to “let go.” I’ve named it “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s”: If no matter what you do or how hard you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming…and you can’t say “No” or won’t “let go,” trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair. In other words, you’ve invested so much time, money and ego in, for example, one right person or position, you can’t “retreat.” Your rigid “egoal-driven” posture won’t allow you to step back and gain a different vantage point, to consider a new perspective.
With the concept of “letting go” hovering in the room, I shared “The Six ‘F’s for Productively Managing Loss and Change” – 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 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. (See addendum below for an elaboration of “The Six ‘F’s for Productively Managing Loss and Change.”)
The women certainly 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 cozy alcove 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.
We were now ready to transition to the major morning small group exercise – a personal exploration of the change-conflict experiences that ultimately moved these participants to come to the Blue Mountain
Retreat Center. (And worth noting, several drove to West Virginia from as far away as Long Island, NY and Alabama!)
Engaging Change and Conflict: Of Time, Pain and Desire
My window for exploring change and conflict (and of course change and conflict can be both inward-directed along with having an interpersonal dynamic) was viewing these individual and group forces from a comprehensive perspective. For example, within a small group (four people), participants used a temporal vantage point to individually examine their “hot” change-conflict experience: how do the past, the present and the future “cook” or influence your cognitive-emotional-behavioral involvement with this energy draining, anxiety provoking (and, possibly, exciting) event or transitional crisis:
a) Past (or what has occurred?) – What really brought the change-conflict issue to a boil? How long has it been smoldering? What aspects of the change/conflict resolution remain unresolved or unfinished? To paraphrase Shakespeare, has there been a past tide not taken…leading to a voyage being stranded in shallows and miseries?
b) Present (or what is ongoing?) – What emotions, relationships, directions, etc. are you grappling with now? Does the portent of danger obscure any sense of opportunity? Can you acknowledge both pain and possibility? What about this existential crossroads stirs fear, anger, sadness and/or shame?
c) Future (or what is anticipated?) – What is or may be on the horizon? Are you considering a change? If so, why is it such a struggle? Why the fear of letting go? What are you afraid of losing; is the fear external (a person or position) and/or internal (loss of your own identity)? Is there any connection between desire and dread, between your fantasy and your fear(s)?
I also tweaked and then shared the lyric to the folk classic, “Where Have all the Flowers Gone”:
Where has all the passion gone?
Long time passing
Where has all the passion gone?
Long time ago
Where has all the passion gone?
As some of you may recall, the actual song’s next words are, “gone to graveyards everyone,” followed by two stanzas of, “When will they ever learn?” I asked the participants to come up with a phrase, where appropriate, for locating their diminished passion. (My phrase: “Gone to lost dreams everyone.”)
And the desires, dreams and disappointments poured forth, but so too did the compassionate listening and questioning, poignant sharing and advising. Some of the women’s stories included:
a) a business owner feeling totally exhausted, thinking she may have to step away, but also wondering how can she let go of her “baby.” And after all these years, if she walked away, what was the purpose of all the blood, sweat and tears? And the biggest trap: she has a hard time relying on others and asking for help,
b) a working mother, a very positively involved parent, anticipating some “empty nest” issues as her youngest daughter is getting ready to leave for college; the challenge is not just saying goodbye, but also saying hello, that is, rebuilding a more meaningful connection with her husband in light of the changing family constellation,
c) a woman grappling with a “damned if I stay, damned if I leave” dilemma in the workplace, and the biggest challenge being not trivializing her own ambivalence with a dismissive, “Oh your just being obsessive, silly, weak, etc.” or “Why are you making such a big deal over this?” Learning to soothe if not silence critical inner voices and respect the deeper meaning and message of such internal conflict is a true gift, and finally,
d) a young woman dealing with chronic pain had to understand how such pain was biasing perspective: wanting to rid yourself of throbbing hurt and agony as soon as humanly and medically possible makes sense; trying to push yourself faster through a graduate program by taking more courses than necessary has a self-defeating quality, especially when it might compound your mind-body stress and take away time needed for physical rehab.
With the “Busy Women” personal stories as a backdrop, I will close with some problem-solving concepts, tools and tips to facilitate our subtitle – “From Each One Letting Go to All Helping One Another Grow.”
1. Beware SST Syndrome. When you put on that heavy armor, sure nobody can get to you, but all those turbulent emotions are locked inside, churning and eating away. Remember, “Strong Silent Types” get a lot more ulcers than Oscars! If your personal mantra increasingly is, “Who gives a d_ _ n! or “Look out for #1” it is overtime for a “stress buddy.” Initially, though, don’t overdo the venting; gradually let out the pressure and pain. Understandably, SST’s dread being overwhelmed; once their floodgates are thrown wide open they fear drowning in the uncontrollable wave of emotion,
2. Seek Some TLC. Obviously, a “stress” or “battlefield buddy” (the label used by military spouses for peers who help them cope with the absence of a loved one) needs to be a good listener. However, more is required. When feeling anxiously confused, enraged or lost, we often need some TLC, though not the standard variety. What’s required is a compassionate corner who also will give it to us straight. We need someone who can provide “Tender Loving Criticism” and “Tough Loving Care.” And not only is this paradoxical mix sometimes hard to swallow; it’s not always easy finding someone mature enough to deliver such complex TLC,
3. Watch for Type E Tendencies. The problem with always being accommodating is the tendency to dismiss your own concerns, wants and needs. Not surprisingly, this often leads to resentment and the belief that people are taking advantage of your “too good” nature. (Remember, a firm “No” a day keeps the ulcers away…and the hostilities, too.) Being “Everything for Everyone, Everywhere and Every Time” is a sure fire formula for acting out the “b”-word (or, at least one of those “b”-words): Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away!
4. Take Time for the Pain. Over and over again it was obvious that a number of these women needed to do some head- and heartfelt grieving before they were able to move beyond malaise or muddle. Tears can be a cleansing agent, allowing light and new perspective to pour in through the dark clouds. Be aware that sitting with or expressing concern for a person in pain can be a challenge. When trying to help, think twice before jumping in with a “here’s what you need to do” agenda. Listen for the other’s unspoken emotions; as previously noted, a yin-yang mix of “TLC” compassion and confrontation often helps a partner productively engage in self-searching, clarification and forgiveness,
5. Throw Away the Agenda, Listen and “Go with the Flow”. When people are encouraged to talk about their issues, ideas and emotions, especially in a small group exercise setting, and they feel sufficiently safe, a caring and stimulating venue for genuine give and take often starts evolving. (Also, helpful for building trust is an exchange revealing a leader’s capacity to accept disagreement or a challenge from one or more members.) Of course, being away from the day-to-day routine greases the openness, risk-taking and intimacy wheels. And another tip: don’t be wedded to a preset outline. By really attending to the expression of concerns, issues and needs, the participants, themselves, will design the group process/critical tool kit road map. And many of the above points are illuminated in the Blue Mountain owner’s distillation of post-retreat evaluation feedback from the attendees. One final aside, while the ensuing comments focus on my skills as facilitator, in truth, it was our ability to create a poignant and passionate, purposeful and playful facilitator-partner team that conjured the “motivational magic”:
a) This subject brought a lot of heavy emotions from the women to the surface. Your ability to help the women work through their issues, and even more importantly…to give them tools with which to transform their stress was truly amazing…they took away many things that they can use in their everyday life,
b) You helped them to evaluate their stressors differently, to see the positive in every stress, conflict and/or change,
c) You helped them realize they are not alone…and allowed and encouraged others to give feedback within the group!
d) The women look forward to working with you again at a future gathering!
Once again the wisdom of “growing through grief” or “letting go” and “going with the flow” is affirmed, especially when sharing with people who have walked in your shoes (and can also feel your bunions). As the Nobel-prize winning, Algerian-French philosopher, Albert Camus, observed: “Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one (or loved object, e.g., a prized outline-agenda) obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.” This inaugural Blue Mountain adventure has truly opened up my mind to wonderful learning and sharing, camaraderie-building and healing possibilities. There will be more retreats for “Busy Women.” It’s an experience that can help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
“The Six ‘F’s for Productively Managing Loss and Change”
1) Familiar. Grappling with anxiety, rage, hopelessness or sadness in letting go of the familiar role or predictable past, leads to a big question: Who am I? This role or relationship has been such a big part of my identity. Remember, sometimes your former niche of success now has you mostly 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. What will be expected of me? Who will I now have to report to or work with? 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. Would this scenario be unsettling: Two months ago your department received a great performance review? Now top management is engaged in major budget cutting, and no one knows if layoffs are on the way. Do you think this feels like a punch in the gut on a very personal level? Shame and guilt, rage and diminished confidence are frequent early traveling partners on an uncertain and profound transitional journey,
4) Focus. Major change can be scary. Underlying feelings may include rage, helplessness, hopelessness and humiliation. Sometimes we need a little rage to break through chains of mind-body-behavior paralysis. Of course, rage needs to be tempered. Remember, more people shoot themselves in the foot than go postal! (And, let me say, as a former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant with the US Postal Service, I know “Going Postal.”) The challenge is to grapple with this array of powerful emotions, if need be, with personal or professional support. You can’t just willpower your way through this psychological quicksand or burnout spiral.
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!
If you can honestly grapple and grieve the first three “F”s, then you are engaged in a productive brooding and refocusing aggression process. Maybe I am ready to knock on if not knock down doors again. At minimum, you will affirm, “I may not like the cards that have 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-like 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. Throughout this process, but especially now, getting solid feedback is crucial. It’s not easy getting clear, clean, and honest feedback: many don’t really have a clue how to give it. Or people are fearful you won’t know how to handle it. You have to work hard to find someone who will give you the Stress Doc’s version of TLC: “Tender Loving Criticism” and “Tough Loving Care.” You need a “stress buddy” to help sort out the wheat from the chaff. Before you blow up in a supervisor’s office check in with your buddy and ask, “Am I seeing this situation objectively or not? What’s my part in this problem?” 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. Of course, there’s always an unpredictable element or moment in major transition. Life is not a straight line progression. However, by doing your “head work, heart work and homework,” you are in a much stronger personal and professional position. You are building cognitive and emotional muscles; you can have faith in a growing ability to handle whatever will be thrown at you. Going through this process means you are evolving the psychological capacity for dealing with ambiguous and unpredictable twists and turns on life’s journey. 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.
And how do we transform the mystical maturation into everyday evolution? Consider the prescient words of the great scientific/polio pioneer, Dr. Jonas Salk: Evolution is about getting one more time than you fall down; being courageous one more time than you are fearful; and trusting just one more time than you are anxious.
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