Successfully Negotiating the Crisis-Trauma, Grief-Transition Passage: Six Emo-Existential Questions

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

It is time to examine “Six Self-Assessment Questions for Successfully Negotiating the Crisis-Grief Trauma or Transition Passage.” These questions are also relevant for anyone in the throes of burn-in or burnout. The questions relate to your sense of:

6) Freedom vs. Responsibility


As will be obvious shortly, both elements of the polarity have positive and negative potential. An optimal dynamic balance is the goal.

Working with Gail Sheehy’s “Mid-Life” Passage Questions from her late-20th c. bestseller, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, I have explicitly differentiated her four polarities (#s1-4) and added two. These emo-existential questions reverberate in three domains: 1) our everyday person-situation “eco”-consciousness (human ecology is the relationship between individuals, families, colleagues, and social groups and their physical and social-cultural environments, Free and 2) our past memories, associated emotions, and overt and covert voices in our head or “echo”-consciousness, and 3) our “ego” consciousness or the degree of perceived “self-in-our-world” competence and confidence, control and connection, conflict and creativity that bridges and synergizes the perception of present-past-future. Ego consciousness is also a conduit between eco- and echo-consciousness.

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These six issues take on particular relevance during times of: a) acute crisis or chronic exhaustion due to major loss, trauma, or transition, b) grappling with burnout or burn-in, and c) in the throes of work-role-identity performance and relationship intimacy/authority challenges.

Six Self-Assessment Questions for Successfully Negotiating the Burn-in-Burnout, Crisis-Trauma Grief-Transition Passage

1. Ideal vs. Real Self. What is the gap between your ideal self and your real one? a) Too Small a Gap. Little or no gap and you are likely resting on an inflated ego or are passing up vital learning opportunities; is the timing really right to go into cruise control or retirement mode?; or has life worn you down so that dreams and hopes are mostly a thing of the past?; perhaps your niche of success now has you stuck in the ditch of excess; maybe your self-image is at a critical crossroad;

b) Too Wide a Gap. Conversely, too broad a chasm and you may feel defeated or at least have diminished confidence and self-esteem issues; critical voices from the past may be a constant reminder of the shortfall in your career, earning power, mate, parental status, (or lack thereof), etc.; a huge gap may induce a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness, especially if trying and not succeeding equates to being a “loser”; perhaps you have a rich fantasy life, but it’s mostly lived out in your head; sometimes audacious goals (or egoals, i.e., when you are driven more by personal pride and ego needs than by reality-based, optimal risk-stretch, and meaningful goals) are a cover for self-doubt, inadequacy, or even a “fear of failure,” that is, sometimes striving unrealistically high is game-playing manipulation to save face in the event of failure; remember, expectations and effort are key, e.g., consider these two admonishing and questioning quotes:  a) pursuing the unobtainable makes impossible the realizable, and b) the second by an officer talking to his soldiers: We are not what we believe…Is it because what we believe is not possible or because we refuse to become what we believe?;

c) Optimal Gap. However, an optimal gap between an “ideal-genuine” self: a) facilitates framing so-called “failure” as the transitional or exploratory space between your aspiration and current position and b) heightens drive, curiosity, and motivation, stimulating you to purposefully meander, discover or design, and evolve a real world sense of competence and a capacity for growth.

2. Security vs. Danger. In your life, what is the balance between security and danger? a) Too Much Security. Being over-driven by security needs may reflect comfort with or defending the status quo, and/or being risk-averse; you don’t want to try and “fail” and risk being seen as a “loser”; in addition, such a stance may impede the capacity or desire to understand (or care about) other people’s needs, resources, and skills;

b) Too Much Danger. Then again, a life constantly filled with danger may be a sign of being an adrenaline or thrill seeking junkie; some research indicates that one motive of thrill-seeking may be to escape personal depression; or perhaps forever hyper-vigilant means feeling anxious, exhausted, and out of control;

c) Optimal Balance. However, there’s another perspective: of all his accomplishments, basketball legend Michael Jordan was perhaps most proud that at the end of the game with victory or defeat on the line, he was willing to take (and take the consequences of making or missing) that last critical shot; MJ knew he had done the necessary “10,000 hours” of mastery practice and preparation and trusted in “his best shot”; flexibly focused tension or “relaxed attention” encourages meandering (both mentally and physically) as well as productive risk-taking; at the same time, Jordan was willing to cajole and challenge teammates to make sure their “eyes were on the championship prize”; while an icon and a controlling (Jordan Rules) iconoclast, his “Airness” still fulfilled commitments and built a team foundation.

Consider the words of another icon that recognized the interaction of security and danger in the human drama. Dr. Jonas Salk, a pioneering founder of the polio vaccine, posited a human scale notion of personal evolution: Evolution is about getting up one more time than you fall down, being courageous one more time than you are fearful…and trusting just one more time than being anxious.

3. Time Sense. Do you believe you have plenty of time or does it feel like it’s running out? a) Too Much Time. Always feeling there’s a surfeit of time may leave one unfocused if not demotivated, with procrastination often an issue; of course, sometimes an increase in time sense reflects a recent loss, whether of a role or a relationship; and while there may be a sense of emptiness and confusion without daily structure, the words of the 20th c. Nobel Prize-winning author, Albert Camus, still ring true: 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; Camus seems to be intimating that: 1) we have invested so much time and energy in the object of our love and/or responsibility, or 2) there’s a degree of unhealthy dependency in the role or relationship (e.g., being married to the job or an identity solely defined by your being a spouse or a parent), that we may have lost sight of our own interests, identity, integrity, and need to evolve.

b) Too Little Time. A chronic shortage of time may lead to distraction, feeling frenzied or overwhelmed, perhaps accompanied by impulse control issues, careless performance, or simply giving up; according to psychiatrist, Jerome Frank, “hopelessness is an inability to imagine a tolerable future”; yet, there’s often no more powerful motivator than when we feel that time is running out, e.g., the unexpected death of a 30-something, mountain climbing, avocado salad-eating beloved research hospital manager had a profound impact on several colleagues, according to a hospital administrator; these colleagues were now coming to him concerned about the fragility and uncertainty of life – “time’s running out and I need to get on a more meaningful, targeted, or upwardly-mobile career track.”

c) Optimal Time. An efficient (“do the thing right”) and effective (“do the right thing”) time balance means there’s an ebb and flow between high energy and meaningful activity, between being spontaneous and deliberate, between staying on course and knowing when to embrace risk – “to grieve, let go, and go with the flow”; you know when to rest and play, and in yin-yang fashion you are able to blend “human doing” and “human being.”

4. Aliveness vs. Stagnation. What is the balance between aliveness and stagnation in your life? a) Too Much Aliveness. excess may mean your electricity is always on in hyperactive fashion, perhaps always burning the candles at both ends; or maybe you are in a digital daze, always wired and often hyper-distracted; or forever talking, monopolizing the conversation, overtly or subtly demanding attention and, of course, impaired as a listener;

b) Too Much Stagnation. Too much stagnation and the world seems boring and colorless, or maybe you’re verging on futility and depression; or in an age of rapid technological change you seem to be losing your hair and developing scales, while climate conditions and currents increasingly determine your body temperature (and blood pressure); in response to feeling threatened you exhibit toxic defenses, and, in general, you are losing a capacity for productive adaptation – structurally you are evolving in reverse, morphing from mammal to reptile, if not becoming a dinosaur;

c) Optimal Balance. Aliveness means bringing an alert, vital, joyful self to your activities and relations; however, a capacity for blending both vitality, perhaps even a little or selective mania, along with judicious restraint and detached concern, including a tolerance for uncertainty or feeling stuck as one incubates on a solution or strategy, and even being appropriately melancholy as one both grieves a loss and gradually or suddenly (Aha!) envisions anew, lays the groundwork for greater breadth and depth to cognitive processing and creative problem solving, and ultimately yields some hard-earned wisdom.

5. Animation vs. Alienation. Does your life reflect a dynamic balance between animation and alienation? My use of the term “animation” goes deeper than vibrancy and enthusiasm (see “Aliveness” above). It is dynamic in the sense of the internal, sometimes unconscious forces that comprise one’s deepest, truest self. In fact, anima refers to a person’s inner “spirit” or essence in contrast to an “outer game face,” mask, or “persona.”

a) Too Much Animation. Authenticity is not commonplace; it is usually an admirable if not a frequently admired quality. However, three drawbacks come to mind: 1) when one’s openness, sensitivity, and “tenderness” leaves one damaged, devastated, or enraged by disappointment or criticism – whether valid or not, and 2) when “honesty” is confused with being authentic; that is, when expressing your “genuine feelings” have more to do with some covert hostility and shame; you’re not “being real” or “speaking your truth”; one’s motive has less to do with affirming integrity or repairing or strengthening a relationship, but may actually reflect conscious fear or aggression as well as “grief ghost” displacement, and 3) when one’s exploration of the spiritual realms fairly consistently blinds one to essential needs and requirements of the actual world; perhaps high level yogis and Buddhist monks being the exceptions,

b) Too Much Alienation. This quandary arises when there is insufficient space for or recognition of your spirit, your essence, and your larger self. And, of course, alienation begins at home when we are denying our own essential self or “anima.” (For example, this estrangement can occur whether denying one’s sexual orientation or by distancing oneself from or actively rejecting one’s own masculine or feminine energy and essence.) And of course, alienation can also occur from endless and unchangeable struggle involving a poor role-relationship fit with a position, partner, or organization, especially when one’s cherished values or genuine voice is forever being compromised or cut short. For example, I’ll never forget how my research psychologist friend, Jim, knew it was time to move into the clinical psychology field. Jim had a dream where he was strapped to a lab table and the rats were operating on him!)

c) Optimal Balance. For me an amalgam of animation and alienation, that dynamic balance of the pursuit of one’s inner spirit and engagement with outer reality, is reflected in a quote from the popular ’60s fictional work, The Phantom Tollbooth: Fantasy and imagination suggest how the world might be. Knowledge and experience limit the possibilities. Melding the two yields understanding.

This perspective balances both being intuitively and holistically immersed (right hemisphere) and objectively and analytically detached (left hemisphere; achieving bihemispheric “peace of minds”); as a consultant I call this paradoxical “detached involvement” space being an “intimate outsider”; it’s a a role that facilitates impartiality, independence, and the building of trusting relationships. This mix also generates focus and flexibility as one is not so attached to the prevailing traditions or trends. Such a capacity for being both goal-focused and flexible regarding long-term objectives and short-term opportunities, as well as an ability to accommodate critical feedback and mid-course correction is the essence of creative and effective problem-solving. Two seemingly contradictory quotations capture the importance of fantasy, focus, and flexibility. The first is from a law firm executive; the second is a Stress Doc maxim:

a) “Strive high and embrace failure.” For a head of a law firm, no matter the project, his goal was a 100% success rate, yet he understood this was frequently elusive. In a way he was alienated from his own animated pursuit of the ideal; could poke paradoxical fun at the inherent gap. His mantra exalted concerted effort and bold persistence along with learning from mistakes over the illusion of perfection; hard-earned wisdom was prized over “one right way” shortcuts and seductive yet short-lived control.

b) “I don’t know where I’m going…I just think I know how to get there.” This aphorism suggests that for achieving an important and heartfelt goal or reaching a key destination that affirms one’s integrity, there may be value in some sense of confusion about or alienation from the tried and (allegedly) true; there’s method to the “madness” of meandering purposefully and playfully. That is, new insight, opportunity, or discovery may require “letting go” of the familiar or getting off the beaten path and taking time for trial and error exploration. (See above, “Strive high and embrace failure.”) Of course, this mindset requires a tolerance for some uncertainty or feeling lost. Also necessary is a sufficient degree of patience, as well as (men…pay attention here) knowing when to ask for directions.

6. Freedom vs. Responsibility. This emo-existential polarity is another addition to Sheehy’s critical transitional questions during crisis points or passages. a) Too Much Freedom. For some there is too much freedom; a lack of structure or routine evokes a sense of disorientation or ennui. While initially proclaiming “they’ve been let out of jail,” without sufficient external structure many start feeling aimless or without purpose, (an obvious example – the crisis of retirement for some Type As);

b) Too Much Responsibility. Conversely, too much responsibility and routine can be suffocating, especially for individuals possessing free-spirited, entrepreneurial, or creative natures; or for more introverted/introspective individuals or “craftsmen” types, insufficient time to process emotions and/or obsess about ideas and tinker with work quality or innovation evokes a sense of being stifled or of not having lived up to one’s standards; or too much restraint or monotony deadens the spirit and begins to bring on a burnout state;

c) Optimal Balance. An optimal blend means balancing “The Stress Doc’s Triple ‘A’ of Responsibility and Resiliency – Authority, Autonomy, & Accountability”; whatever the personal, family, or organizational role, the mature and evolving individual within an adaptive-productive relationship and system has an opportunity to affirm and exercise his unique perspective and passions, skills and talents (“Authority & Autonomy”); and at the same time this individual is motivated to be “respectful, real, responsible, and responsive” to others and to fulfilling reasonable role expectations in his or her world (“Accountability”).

Stay tuned for more on the saga of Grief Ghosts. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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