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The Art of Letting Go: Freeing Up Grief, Defusing Power Struggles and Inspiring Flow

The phrase “letting go” has long been a vital part of my stress management overview, especially related to breaking the “erosive spiral” of that all-consuming “b”-word. (When it comes to stress, actually, a number of emotionally charged “b” words jump to mind, for example, “botox,” or when you have a BMW colleague, which I recently learned stands for an individual constantly “Bitching, Moaning and Whining.”) Now, of course, I’m talking about burnout. As noted in “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” – because you’ve invested so much time and money, energy and ego in that one right person, position or possible outcome – so that you cannot or will not step back and consider new perspectives, resources or options…trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair.

I’ve come to appreciate three key arenas – psychological-interpersonal-motivational – in which “letting go” is critical for rebirth, resolution and resilient risk-taking, i.e., for generating new direction, a more daring focus and a revitalized determination, both for yourself and for others. And appropriately enough, the first two arenas of “letting go” stimulate your “Inner GPS,” providing a map and tools for “Engaging with ‘Grief’ and ‘Power Struggles’”:

1. Letting Go as the Key to Freeing Up Grief. Consider my Mobius Strip mantra: “One must begin to separate; one must be separate to begin.” In paradoxical, yin-yang fashion, every beginning or separation contains its own seed of endings or returns; every ending or return has a beginning and separation seed lying dormant. Any transition, whether stirring rage or resignation, rejoicing or relief is a dynamic, ongoing mix and flux of endings-wanderings-settlings-separations and potentially-eventually new beginnings and returns. And in turn, every new beginning eventually comes to an end, once again providing both a fresh or unexplored landscape and mindscape of “danger and opportunity.” Having the courage and support to face the acute emotions of this ever twisting and turning transition – such as fear and anger, helplessness and hopelessness, panic and paralysis, and/or mania and melancholy – makes it more difficult to deny the swirling, shifting currents, makes it harder to merely tread water. Letting go and grappling with grief enables you to embrace and retrace, if not gradually replace, the past with new or reenergized purpose and passion. As I once wrote:

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 what helps ignite the mystical or, at least, the mythical?

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes

One must know the pain

To transform the fire to burning desire.

And if you can risk confronting that roaring river of pain – an often confusing rush and reliving of past and present emotions and memories – and over time can survive the occasional eerie stillness, the oftentimes tumultuous white water passage of grief, then you may arrive at a place more light than dark, a new transitional harbor offering some hard-earned healing and wisdom along with newfound maturity and opportunity.

According to Nobel Prize-winning author, 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.

Helping people engage with the emotional vulnerabilities, uncertainties and pain inherent in loss and major transition, that is, grappling with the psychological ramifications not merely with the changing physical realities – managing a new operating system, relocating an office, merging departments or divisions, etc. – is the foundational first step in the journey of evolution.

As renowned, 20th c. medical pioneer, Jonas Salk, declared: Evolution is about getting up one more time than you fall down; being courageous one more time than you are fearful; being trusting just one more time than you are anxious.

2. Letting Go as the Key to Defusing Power Struggles. In the heat of interpersonal battle, why is it so hard to let go? In addition to the fact that we’ve been engaged in such struggles most of our life (certainly toilet training was an early testing ground), power struggles definitely can set off some emotional “hot buttons.” Here are key psycho-social-cultural dynamics that impede stepping back and attempting to reengage more effectively – “The Five ‘C’s of Power Struggles”:

a. Control – who has control, who is in charge?; this relates to the authority-status-power dimension, whether in the workplace, e.g., supervisor-subordinate relation, or the parent-child family dynamic; however, sometimes control needs are driven less by role considerations and more by aggressive messages and actions; consider my take on the covert motivation of the dysfunctional “strong silent type”: “For me to be strong you must be silent!”

b. Competition – another family dynamic – sibling rivalry – or competition; who is the favorite who is better?; it’s easy for these issues to get acted out in the workplace as well

c. Change – times of change raise levels of uncertainty and anxiety; not surprisingly, at these times, many people have a greater need to be in control of their environment, including other people

d. Cultural Diversity – surely, different perspectives, values, customs, expectations, etc., forged by cultural upbringing and experience can contribute to misunderstanding and standoffs

e. Communication Skills – do the parties have the communicational competence to negotiate conflict and find “the pass in the impasse”?

Understanding the emotionally charged nature of these dimensions may allow for a cooling off period, at least for the person who can “let go.”

When the Other Party Won’t “Let Go”

My metaphor for letting go in an interpersonal context is “dropping the rope,” that is, acknowledging to the other party that the tug of war or words is not working for you. Dropping the rope is not a sign of resignation or intimidation. When declared up front, “letting go” opens another problem-solving pathway. Of course, real life is not always so rational; actually, it’s often more psycho-logical! As a recent workshop participant painfully declared, “What if the other person – a colleague at work – won’t let go of the argument; tries to call you out for wanting to cease and desist even after a reasonable attempt at problem-solving?” It was clear the workshop attendee’s blood pressure was rising even as she spoke. My response was brief and to the point. “Let the individual know that you are taking a time out from this back and forth (to this point unproductive, from your perspective). You are neither afraid of him nor are you giving up; in fact, you will get back to him the next day. However, if the two of you cannot resolve your differences, you are not going to continue this head banging. You will call in a third party; you are not going behind anyone’s back. But you will insist there be some form of mediation.” Her energetic “thank you” told me “message sent was message received.”

So letting go doesn’t mean losing or giving up; it involves stepping back, presenting new perspectives and approaches, while reaffirming interpersonal boundaries as well as your personal integrity. And in a letting go process, at a particular juncture, you may have to accept that meaningful resolution may be out of your individual control. And you can live with this!

From GPS (Grief and Power Struggles) to Intimate FOE and Inspiring Flow

We’ve examined letting go both from a poignantly psychological perspective and from a power struggling and defusing one. Now let’s consider letting go from the vantage point of self-acceptance and meaningfully touching and moving others. My “four word” small group exercise hopefully will prove illustrative. It’s pretty basic: “Share an embarrassing moment.” And the room invariably goes through a metamorphosis – from somewhat anxious silence to uproarious verbal outpourings and animated nonverbal gesturing and posturing. One story cascades over another: “That was good; now let me tell you about my experience!”

3. Letting Go as the Key to Inspiring Flow. I especially like using this exercise with folks in leadership positions. Why is that? The exercise helps remove the “having it all together” or “always being in control” mask. One may have to risk revealing a vulnerable aspect of self. Yet, lo and behold, not only don’t people think less of you…hearing your story evokes knowing laughter, a genuine empathy (“not only have I walked in similar shoes, I can feel your bunions”), and even some admiration for your courage to share. I call this “Confronting Your Intimate FOE: Fear of Exposure.” And as previously noted, the storyteller becomes a risk-taking role model; one vignette inspires another, invariably becoming more animate and passionate with each telling.

Making Room for Cultural Diversity, Mutual Humanity and Authenticity

Such unguarded sharing also reminds us that some experiences, like embarrassment, are universal and helps underscore our mutual humanity no matter how diverse our cultural backgrounds. Perhaps most important, for a precious moment in time, it breaks down artificial rank and status barriers between people, allowing for more personal and intimate connection. (For example, when the military wants a free flowing team exchange, despite the presence of “superior” rank in the room, they may hold a “Helmet’s Off” meeting. In fact, I have done facilitation work with army and air force units; my interactive exercises help them to better “walk their team and trust building talk.”) Remember, in a healthy social environment, not one simply manipulated by Big Brother media, machinations or mayhem, most people place their hopes and trust in authentic individuals whom they come to know through real give and take relationships. People identify with an imperfect yet accessible and courageous leader more than an unfeeling iconic statue.

A Closing Leadership Mantra and Message, Method and Model

Here’s a final leadership mantra: Learn to “Let Go”: Turn Your Intimate FOE into Inspiring Flow! People want to connect with real and risk-taking leaders. They too want to laugh at their flaws and foibles, to painfully learn from yet also playfully laugh in the face of failure…to finally let go of that incessant critical voice. Many want to taste and touch this potent, idiosyncratic and liberating energy and spirit. For when you bring both head and heart, when you simultaneously project a purposeful and provocative, passionate and playful message and presence, you become a magnet; people are drawn to your energy and essence. (Consider my expansion of a saying passed on by a battle-tested salesman: “Logic Tells and Passion Sells. And ‘Passion Power’ Compels.”) Yet, ironically, if your motivation is unselfish, you will help others become less afraid of speaking up, if not of breaking out and breaking away. Remember, from its biblical origins, spirit is “the breath and flow of life,” hence spirit’s connection with “respiration” and “inspiration.” So if you are determined to:

a) rebuild your purposeful and passionate, newfound possibilities fire,

b) not be distracted or constrained by draining and unproductive power struggles, and

c) embrace and share your imperfect humanity while breathing life and energy into others…try the Stress Doc’s CPR method – be a model for “Creative-Passionate-Risk-Taking” (CPR) Leadership…“Grieve, Let Go and Become the Flow.”

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing "Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also rotated as a Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention 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 [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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