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The Risk and Reward of Emotional Agility: How to Know When to Let Go

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

I recently came across the term “emotional agility” in a workshop promotion. Of course “Emotional Intelligence” is an industry buzzword and “emotional resilience” frequently appears in my stress and wellness readings, but this phrase seemed new. Agility makes me think of those fresh-faced female Olympic gymnasts – (nimble, supple, alert, swift, responsive, daring, etc.) – along with bygone days of bodysurfing at Jones Beach and scrambling up red rock in Sedona, AZ. And while the body of late is a bit more creaky and clumsy, I still can conjure a heart that sings and a mind that dances, (and sometimes too a body that gyrates, see below) even when the invitation is sudden and unexpected. Of course, it helps to have a vulnerable yet courageous, genuine and risk-taking partner. And perhaps most important, such head- and heart-felt agility may quickly open you to powerful sharing and emotional intimacy, especially in the face of psychological binds and barriers. Consider this brief and intense yet poignant encounter.

Exuberance was still in the air as government employees and managers filed out of a half-day “Building Stress Resiliency” class. Throughout the program, the interactive energy and open, thoughtful peer engagement had been on display. Now I was feeling a bit high after a closing, full blast rendition of “The Stress Doc’s Shrink Rap” ™. Bouncing around in Blues Brothers hat and black sunglasses, while arrhythmically shaking my black tambourine had initially generated a number of startled looks and gaping mouths. But upon “wrapping up,” almost all would agree that even the most analytical, legal, and technical minds (actually, the predominant mindsets in the room) had been delightfully (and thoughtfully) aroused and tickled. And the sharp lyrics reverberated across several generations. Naturally, I got the biggest laugh when I followed the hearty clapping with, “I’ve been doing this long enough. I know when an audience is applauding out of relief!”

Pairing witty yet wise lyrics with unabashedly awkward yet enthusiastic gyrations reminds me of a distinction between wit (saying funny things) and humor (saying things in a funny way) and demonstrates some kind of bihemispheric brain flexibility. And another sign of cognitive-affective agility, one I’ve been practicing for a good while with varying degrees of success, is rapidly shifting emotional gears – having a humorous message spring from a serious conceptual underpinning or slyly inserting some double-edged humor in a pointed missive. But let me return to our workshop setting and an imminent challenge: demonstrating emotional agility without humor as a clutch or crutch.

Turning On an Emotional Dime

As is customary after a program I was about ready to decompress when, out of the “feel good” haze, a gentleman perhaps in his early fifties, of slight, yet lean and compact build, standing erect, with a neat and close cropped haircut, the last attendee in the room, approached with a troubling question. During the workshop, I had mentioned working with the military. With a serious and somber look and tone, this father shared that his son, six months ago, had committed suicide, a year after coming back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He also acknowledged that his son had been diagnosed as manic-depressive.

A palpable sigh and nodding head was my immediate reaction and attempt at some humble “Despite my experience, I’m not sure I can fully fathom the depth of your pain” connection. I eventually acknowledged that suicide has become a big concern for the military, especially the Army.

Before I could ask how he was doing, he shared that he was struggling with an issue. Before his son’s death and for a while afterward, he had been attending the Army’s Wounded Warrior rehabilitation and resocialization program. An administrator in the WW program observed how this government examiner and his family had courageously grappled with the loss of their son. The Administrator recently asked the father if he’d be willing to counsel other soldiers (and, I assume, other families).

The father’s conflict mirrored my own; however, his eyes also radiated some alarm. Initially, he focused on the fear of saying the wrong thing when counseling someone in the grip of pain and torment. He didn’t want to be responsible for…the rest of the sentence was left unspoken. (Surely this fear was colored by his son’s actions.)

The Logical, the Psychological, and the Experimental

There was a logical side of my brain that wanted to share, “This is a common fear, and usually unfounded. If you are ever uncertain about your feelings or unsure about what to say, just trust your gut, for example: ‘I can’t imagine or I don’t know what to say. Or, I don’t know if this is the same situation, and I’m not trying to give advice, more just sharing my perspective, but when such and such happened to me (or us) this is what I experienced, or this is how I felt, this is what I wanted to do, this is what I finally did, etc.'” Sometimes emotional agility is as much knowing what not to say (or when not to say it) as it is using a clever retort or felicitous phrase.

Like the WW Administrator, my gut told me this man had a lot of hard-earned empathy and wisdom that truly could be of value to others. I was also associating to how my girlfriend fairly quickly joined and then, eventually, became a group leader at her local chapter of “Compassionate Friends” when her 19 year old daughter died suddenly in a car accident. This parent support group enabled her to hold on, even if just barely, to her shredded life and fragile sanity.

However, the psychological part of me knew he needed more time and help, which was confirmed when this dad dug a little deeper. Now he acknowledged not knowing if he was ready to dredge up once more all the painful feelings of the last year-and-a-half. Thinking on my feet, my intent was not to help this gentleman make a final decision about the counseling role. Instead, I suggested he speak to a professional at the Wounded Warrior program who would truly listen to the concerns he had shared with me. I reiterated, “This person’s goal must not be to ultimately convince you to become a volunteer. Let them know you need an ear, someone who will help you continue to grapple with your loss while enabling you to sort out the emotional pros and cons of such a poignant decision.”

I truly believe by sharing and reliving his story, his personal and family pain, in a safe setting, with a knowledgeable and concerned guide, this father’s “grief ghosts” will be less haunting, his emotional highs and lows less disorienting, and his son’s spirit will more comfortably reside within.

Finally, I had one more idea: if after a period of personal coaching and reflection, he still had some questions, he could try the coaching as a pilot project – perhaps for a month. Then, in consultation with a WW professional, both parties could assess his comfort and confidence levels.

He acknowledged not having considered a trial run. Now, his heartfelt words of thanks, but especially his softened eyes and body posture, said this father had a newfound sense of possibility if not direction.

Closing Thoughts

Why did I write this essay? Some voice in my head, some echo in my heart wanted this encounter to live beyond its five minute lifespan. This courageous man challenged me to move beyond my own self-absorption; and he helped bring out parts of me – both head and heart – that I most value. I am grateful that he perceived me as a person he could entrust with his wounded heart. Writing enables me to bring to life this extra-ordinary encounter, to depict and share the delicacy and complexity of the moment – two men grappling with meaning, memory, and that fine line between giving of and to one’s self. Hopefully, this essay also conveys a notion of agility that animates the words of the acclaimed 20th novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the sentiments of numerous other artists and scientists: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise…especially by reaching out from a precarious limb to another individual both knowledgeable and also willing to humbly accept his own limits and vulnerability.

Words to inspire emotional agility and to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

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