Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Family Dysfunction and Trials of Immigrant Transition: Performance Pressure Dynamics

Examining the broad parallels between how family dysfunction and immigrant status, especially immigrants in the throes of transition stress, may affect performance pressure, the Stress Doc puts a Nepali professional under the microscope. The goal is to understand the dynamics of a recent high stress performance situation, but not just for one individual.  The Doc scrutinizes a host of factors that may have wide-ranging influence on “insider-outsider” expectations and perceptions, as well as performance behaviors and social/status interactive patterns.

Family Dysfunction Dynamics and Trials of Immigrant Transition:  Performance Pressure

As my circle of immigrant friends and colleagues expands and cultural understanding deepens, I increasingly appreciate the everyday stressors that many new immigrants experience while pursuing the “American Dream.” In addition, I’m seeing parallels with the psychological pressures and tensions experienced growing up in a dysfunctional family.  (I’m not saying being an immigrant turns individuals and families dysfunctional.  In fact, I admire how hard most work in often demanding, if not draining, situations and circumstances.  Of course, working exhausting hours or juggling multiple jobs may drive folks to the burnout point.  Then again, major migration is often a source of tension, if not trauma, and in states of crisis or trauma, highly disorienting and/or disruptive individual and family patterns may appear, at least temporarily.  Depending on the quality of family/friend support and access to responsive allied health/problem-solving resources, the angst, confusion, and uncertainty may be short-lived or lead to more chronic symptomatology and regressive behavior.)

12-Step/Outsider Mantra

Interestingly, as a second-generation American, I see similarities in my own maladaptation to a repressed and depressed, secretive childhood family life.  I also recognize emotional-communication parallels in the myriad stories shared in various 12-Step Groups.  Shrouded in shame and stigma, the dysfunctional family mantra: “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.”)  However, this mantra is also not unknown to groups feeling like outsiders, or who believe they are safer, or that it’s easier huddling with your own kind.  (Having others with whom you relate for social/identity validation supports wellness.  Insularity and isolation is often problematic, heightening the sense of “Otherness” or “Outsider.”  And IMHO, today’s threatening political climate only ups the insular-secretive-xenophobic ante.)  Okay, compared to plain old dysfunctional me, for those in the throes of major life transition – especially the being “a stranger in a strange land” variety – stress and tension is likely magnified.  Perhaps transition trauma has a relation to psychosocial dysfunction akin to my comparative claim that Las Vegas is like New Orleans, but on steroids!

Parallels between Family Dysfunction and Transition Trauma

So, what are some of these pressure-packed dysfunctional-transitional parallels?  Four that quickly come to mind (and expanded upon after reading an interview with Dr. James L. Griffith, MD, a Washington, DC psychiatrist who has worked globally with refugee families; see Marie Rohde, “Global Mental Health, One Refugee at a Time,” Health Progress,, March-April 2014):

1) Mental Health Stigma – there’s a stigma around mental health issues; acknowledging mind-body-spirit tensions, depressions, grief ghosts, and/or self-defeating behaviors is a sign of weakness and is shameful.  When these issues are closeted, they fester, becoming a source of dis-ease, if not mind-body dysfunction.  The not uncommon result is a stigmatized individual and a family shrouded in dishonor.  (Of course, when it comes to questions of mental illness, suffering in silence and secrecy is often the preferred modus operandi, and not just for immigrant cultures.)  And, remember, in many immigrant cultures, family identity supersedes individual identity, unlike in the more individualistic – pull yourself up by those bootstraps – culture of the US, for example.  (Gee, what happens if you don’t have a pair of cowboy boots?)

2) Underutilized/Undervalued – many new immigrants, especially those formerly having significant professional-skill positions in their countries of origin, often must grapple with working at jobs way below their education and experience levels; talk about a feeling of loss as well as the potential for erosion of one’s sense of self-worth and core identity.  Predictably, over time, if feeling stuck, if inertia sets in, personal competence and confidence diminish.  And this pressure-filled expectation is passed on to the next generation:  children are often burdened as flag bearers for a parent’s broken professional dreams!

3) Passivity vs. Perfection – not surprisingly, feeling underutilized and undervalued, often leads to complementary patterns: the first is avoidance, one is not adequate to the task or social situation, or one becomes resigned to one’s station in life.  Conversely, some reveal a compulsive need to compete, often feeling their value as a person is being tested; there’s not just pressure to perform, but one must win, if not be perfect.  And to complete the vicious circle, the pressure to be perfect can motivate an individual to give up or duck out of any activity that might expose human imperfection.

4) Nostalgia vs. the New Challenge – the classic immigrant challenge:  how do you hold onto the good of the old and embrace what is adaptive in the new – a “best of both worlds” approach; alas, difficult to do, especially if caught in a rigid, all-or-none mindset.  The danger, of course, is nostalgia, over-idealizing what we left and trashing the new.  Or over-idealizing the new homeland and forgetting the old.  When it comes to past and present, can a person integrate both pros and cons in mind and mood?  As noted, 20th c. American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed:  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.

Putting Pressures to the Performance Test

Let me share a recent experience that captures some of the above stressors, especially related to sense of self and performance pressure.  Our protagonist, BD, a married 40+ immigrant lawyer from Nepal, is still grappling with figuring out his own personal-cultural synthesis.  Thinking he would be returning to Nepal, he did not fully concentrate on improving his spoken and written English.  Alas, his wife and son had other ideas.  Because of a divided focus, seven years in the States has not led to English proficiency, especially in the speaking arena. Now he’s belatedly playing catch-up, hence our coaching lessons.

Just last week, a new challenge appeared on the horizon.  As head of a caste-focused/human rights organization, BD was asked to participate in a panel discussion on “Caste and Democracy” for an invitation only conference sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).  (The desire to have open and frank discussion about many sensitive socio-cultural-political issues was behind the invitation-only event.  I had to get special permission to attend.)

NED is a DC-based international human rights/academic think tank; in addition to field and scholarly research, the organization also provides grant money and funding for human rights projects.  (So, this was an important opportunity for BD and his International Coalition of Dalit Rights, ICDR.  If not a TED Talk, it was certainly a NED Talk. ;-)  A number of the guest speakers were from South Asian countries, nations where caste hierarchies/systems still formally and informally oppress, allowing all but survival subsistence for hundreds of millions.  Alas, for so many of these individuals and communities (called Dalits), birthright is destiny.  Immediately branded “untouchable,” often treated as leper-like outcasts, limited in their educational-economic-political opportunities, most are consigned to a stigmatizing, no, let’s say it, a dehumanizing role-status in their society.  (FYI, BD’s keen intelligence and fierce pride, being a fighter, a need to challenge limits, a strong aversion to social injustice, helped him break out of a caste-based upbringing.  And, of course, you take your family-cultural history – strengths and wounds, hopes and hurts – with you, no matter where you go.)

When the Time Trial becomes a Test of Time, Speech, and Self-Worth

In some ways, the biggest presentation obstacle was having only ten minutes for his opening remarks.  But if I drill deeper, a major drag was the heaviness of the psychological bag that BD, as a new immigrant still grappling to find his niche and voice, carries around.  And, of course, I am sharing this story because BD’s narrative and struggles are not unique.

Before examining these interconnected public presentation challenges, some background points.  As a coach, (and a schooled-by-hard-knocks-and-hard-earned-wisdom public speaker), my biggest concern was that ten-minute window.  Though he had given public presentations before, in this forum, BD would have to be concise and precise, choosing a select number of key points.  (And, of the five languages that BD speaks, English was not yet his strong suit.)  As a speaker, I know the truth espoused by one of those Englishmen of letters, apologetically explaining his lengthy missive to a friend, thusly: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter.”  In truth, a ten-minute presentation is more challenging than an hour talk.  To be most effective, one needs to prepare and practice, to tightly weave a beginning, middle, and closing.  First, one must establish credibility. (I had strongly encouraged BD to connect his personal Dalit experience with his passion to fight caste-based injustice.)  And the next task, to succinctly diagnose the problem and posit some strategic, “bullet point” recommendations.  There’s not a lot of room for mental meandering.

But my state of angst was not simply about selection and preparation; I was keenly aware of the issues of diction (choice of words) and pronunciation (clearness of speech).  Trying to get in too many points would compel BD to quicken his speech, which invariably reduces the clarity of his message.  (I can’t help but think of the elocution lessons of Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady, slowly and painstakingly declaring over and over again, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”  My Professor Henry Higgins moment:  surreptitiously flashing a “Talk Slow” sign just before BD’s turn to talk.)  Yet we both believed that reading his talk would not be walking his talk:  conveying “passion” was more important than “polish.”

Not Walking the Talk

Alas, my fear was realized, at least in the first go-round.  Caught up in the moment, BD spoke too quickly, at least for these senior ears.  In his initial brief panel presentation, BD mostly didn’t personalize his message, didn’t select and focus on key points, seemed to touch on too many facets of the problem (including challenging NED to become more involved with caste-based issues, probably a good thing).  Towards the end of his presentation, belatedly recognizing something was amiss, BD closed by reading quickly too many points from his written script.  Unfortunately, overall, his pace of speech meant I understood about half of what was said.

In a post-conference conversation, BD acknowledged his early mistakes, but said he had chances in the afternoon to more effectively personalize and deliver the desired message.  Having to leave shortly after his initial presentation, I was glad to hear of the recovery.  And in fact, while still present, I did hear and understand his response to a question posed by an audience member.  In our day-after critique, BD acknowledged that as the face of his advocacy organization, he must redouble his speech preparation and pronunciation efforts.  To BD’s credit, his fighting spirit would once again prevail.  Nonetheless, it’s important to ask:  What happened initially?  What scrambled both sound and image in this presentation picture?

Presentation Post-Mortem

I will posit both reasoned arguments and hypothetical questions.  However, a bedrock for this analysis is the following pith ditty: “Wherever you go/whatever you do, life journey baggage comes with you.”  So, what were some of the key items impacting DB’s presentation?

1. High Stakes Setting.  Obviously, when sharing your story in public is important, as it was for BD – both for business and personal/ego reasons – and there will be (perceived) significant consequences to presentation success or lack thereof, performance angst increases.  Now an optimal heightening of tension tends to sharpen performance focus; if tension is excessive (or, conversely, if the presenter is demotivated or feeling bored), performance quality decreases.

Another dimension, not yet explored, was my sitting in the audience.  I had never seen BD present in public.  Interestingly, in our preparation, BD shared that his wife downplayed the significance of this event, noting that her husband has given many public talks.  But then she added, “But you have a chance to make Mark proud.”  At the time, BD and I both laughed.  But maybe I was a source of pressure affecting performance.

2. Insufficient Preparation.  As noted previously, with a short presentation, some folks mistakenly think you can be “off the cuff” or basically improvise.  BD was juggling several projects that week; our inability to meet and “rehearse” until the day before didn’t allow sufficient time to design a new KISS – Keep It Short and Smart – outline.  Just as important, 11th hour preparation precluded sleeping on his presentation over the course of a few days.  Rehearsal and sleep strengthen memory consolidation.

3. Time Pressure.  If you are well-prepared and have a game plan, time pressure will enhance your energy, focus, and impact.  Alas, the opposite preparation conditions make improvisational performance a high-risk situation.  And having previously given a longer version of the talk, does not necessarily smooth the “ten-minute” path.

But the issue is not only the selection of the content; for BD, under time pressure, his English pronunciation became a stumbling block for message sent = message received.  The culprit was a three-headed monster:  lack of time to get in key points prompted faster speech; faster speech prompted less clear enunciation.  And the final self-defeating head…starting to sense things are not going as anticipated (perhaps reading your audience’s response or lack thereof), reading notes at the end to quickly add key points.  To use a forest/trees analogy, now your essential points, like distinctive trees, get lost in in a tangled forest of words.

4.  Insufficient Streamlined Focus.  You have a much better chance to be informative and inspiring using my KISS technique – Keep It Short and Smart – by highlighting and fleshing out three or four key points, than to superficially cover two or three times that number.  Somehow, I’m reminded of a quote by martial arts icon, Bruce Lee.  Lee observed that when it comes to assessing competition, he is less concerned about an opponent that has 10,000 techniques than the individual who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

4.  Defying Authority.  Some reasonable post-mortem questions might be:  Why did BD not follow my suggestions to highlight a few key points and to make a personal connection between his Dalit past and human rights activist present?  (BD was personally aware of my experience and skills as a public speaker.)  Had time-place pressure upset his game plan?  Was he defying his coach?  Was he needing to put his signature on the program?  Was it a Frank Sinatra – “My Way” – moment?  If there was a need to “prove” something, was it logical or psycho-logical, or maybe cultural…or all of the above?  Let’s further pursue some of the above.

5.  Hot Button Effects.  First off, let me declare that I was not a naturally gifted speaker, as a youngster or as a young professional (much too caught up in my fears and feelings of inadequacy).  So, I can relate to performance angst contributing to BD’s uneven message delivery.  However, I’d like to focus on the disorienting source coming from a deep-seated place, not always self-evident.  This self-doubt is connected to one’s own essential and existential worthiness, especially when in foreign, if not alien, territory.  And one manifestation of such doubt can be believing that articulating but a handful of points will not establish you as a subject matter expert.  Getting both hypothetical and anecdotal, let me speculate:

a) perhaps to feel more authoritative or, as likely, to believe he would be seen as an authority, BD might have thought he needed to hit on “ten key points, instead of three or four.”  Another Nepali professional resonated to a family message shared by many African-American friends and colleagues over the years.  To paraphrase, “To have a seat at the dominant culture table you have to be twice as good as your white counterpart.”  This Nepali friend could relate to an immigrant trying too hard to impress, to prove his worth, at times to the detriment of his recital.  Now while the statement contains some hyperbole, I also believe, for many immigrants and people of color, as well as for numbers who are products of significantly dysfunctional families, depending on the performance arena and circumstance, there is often some truth in this injunction.  And certainly, research supports the notion that members of the dominant culture invariably carry around prejudicial perceptions about minority cultures.  All of the above can influence performance expectation and pressure.

b) another social-cultural dynamic in the room, was the presence of people from India and Nepal, from the upper class/caste system, e.g., one scholar from Nepal never had known any Dalits growing up.  Despite the NED invitation, might this be the loose equivalent of a sports team playing on the road in a (covertly) “hostile environment” or “Daniel in the lion’s den?”  I suspect there’s some social status tension for BD that can influence focus, even what he might be willing to share, how vulnerable to be, whether to shed performance armor, how willing to trust, a determination to “show them!”, etc.  And, as noted, such tension, including aggressive feelings, can also influence the need to prove one’s worth, adding more info than is optimal, accelerating pace of speech, perhaps even deciding to lecture those who mostly have “academic knowledge,” not life lived in the trenches.

Closing Summary

For me, writing this essay has been a mini-journey, exploring my own and others’ ethnic/cultural diversity assumptions, biases, and unconscious motivations.  I’m still cogitating on the myriad dynamics that come into play in the realm of social status difference, self-other expectations, as well as performance pressure and adaptive vs. self-defeating coping.  FYI, BD is also still reflecting on what affected his performance.  He also eagerly accepted my suggestion that he write a succinct (ten-minute) narrative linking his experience growing up in a “subordinate” caste society and his drive to be a human rights advocate:  how does one grapple with the pain, integrate it as part of one’s essence, not buying the oppressive label while transcending the “undesirable” social-cultural injunctions.  Finally, how does an individual discover/design his or her own unique identity path, create a position of solidarity with other progressive individuals and groups, and challenge those holding on to status quo assumptions and power dynamics?  Can’t think of a timelier question!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker, writer, and "Psychohumorist" ™, is a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative.  He is also a "Leadership Consultant" for the international Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University, HQd in Daytona, FL.  A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army.  The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, and Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World.  Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info, email:

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Note of Appreciation: The Vital Intersection of Writer and Reader, Coach and Learner, Performer and Participant

As Thanksgiving approaches, the election hangover momentarily ebbs. (I'm counting on Trump and his minion, along with the counter-reaction, to fuel media explosion-exploitation for periodic transition mayhem.)  During this psycho-political interregnum, I wish to express thanks for the chance to contribute in the face-to-face – individual and organizational – arenas as well as through social media platforms.

The Vital Intersection of Writer and Reader, Performer and Participant

Starting with the digital universe, an unexpected note from a reader helps, once again, solidify my decision to walk my “Psychohumorist” ™ talk along that off-the-beaten, writer's path:  Congratulations on the new book. (Ed. note:  Fierce Longing...Fiery Loss:  Relearning to Let Go, Laugh & Love; on Amazon.]  You may not remember me but we met a few years ago. Unfortunately, after our meeting I became ill and have been in and out of the hospital for the last 2 years. Your emails are always refreshing and help me appreciate the gift that God has given you and encourage you to keep up the good work. God blessDH

Feedback from readers – pro and con – thankfully, is one of the forces that keep this mind obsessively grinding and, occasionally, trail-blazing.  As I once penned:

For the phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!

It was only after my third decade that I sensed the urge, the desire, and the potential to be a writer with a home-grown, meaningful, and playful voice.  Now, after three + decades evolving and honing my craft, first and foremost, I write to harness emotionally intensity, to construct an imaginative bridge between the conscious and the subliminal, to drill for psycho-kaleidoscopic memory, with its fading images yet also sudden bursts of pulsing and streaming color.  I labor at the keyboard (and sometimes still rough out initial ideas by hand), to find and shape my own "word artist" anima, not just a persona, to conjure and express an idiosyncratic conceptual frame, to transform complexity and confusion into a multi-threaded yet singular creative tapestry.  Ah…to choose the right word, to sculpt that compelling metaphor, to grapple with rhythm and rhyme.  Consider this illustration by one of my heroes, Mark Twain, American humorist and man of letters; his cleverly crafted, truly inspiring conception of “wit”:  Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation!

Finally, I write to stand up to and laugh at all those critical, self-doubting voices in my head, that forever emerge as I'm nervously posturing and positioning myself in the new project starting blocks. And despite the anticipatory angst (or, perhaps, because of the same) ...I feel the least need to justify myself when immersed in creative writing.

The Learning, Sharing, and Performing Arenas

But this word artist must thrive on both page and stage (or, at least, a coach’s chair).  And for this, too, I am grateful.  First, as a writing and speech coach, helping an immigrant lawyer's pursuit of both the American Dream and supporting his advocacy message of human – social-educational-economic-political – rights for individuals caged in caste-based systems, especially in South Asia.  In the process, I am better understanding the challenge of the immigrant experience, especially giving up “the once big fish in a smaller pond” status. Sometimes it’s nice to be in the shadows while supporting another’s struggle to recreate the limelight…feeling like an “uncle” as much as a coach.

And a recent stage appearance, as a Leadership Consultant and workshop-retreat leader/facilitator for the internationally-based Leadership Institute of Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University.  I will be expanding my training role with their management and supervisory staff.  I have loved brainstorming and working with the Leadership Institute Team, assisting on webinars and providing university personnel with an in-the-flesh "Stress Doc (Retreat) Experience" (to quote the Leadership Director).  Helping audiences “Get FIT – by making programs FUN-Interactive-Thought-provoking – creates a symbiotic and synergetic learning laboratory.

Back to the social media arena, I'm also grateful for the congratulations and "likes" by so many Linked-In contacts to my profile posting of the newly evolving Embry-Riddle position.  In fact, here was my note of acknowledgement:

Thanks...appreciate the congrats. Looks like I'm starting to fly around as a leadership consultant.

Hope you are also in flight. Anything cookin?  Still would love to partner. Best wishes and good adventures. Mark

See recent leadership retreat testimonial (below) for international Aeronautics Univ. (FYI, just been asked by Embry-Riddle Aeronautics U./Leadership Institute, HQd in Daytona, FL, to do another "magical" leadership retreat with university managers, this time at their satellite campus in Prescott, AZ.)


Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University/Leadership Institute, Daytona, FL (Global HQ), "Building Power through Conflict," One-Day Leadership Retreat for 30 managers/supervisors

Nov 3, 2016

Mark Gorkin took our leadership group on a discovery tour of how conflict brings power. He demonstrated and we practiced the art of “letting go of the rope” – that frequent occurrence of two people standing firm on differing sides of an issue. They both keep pulling until one pulls the other over – never a good solution but most often the outcome. The art of letting go gave our participants another great tool for creating a win-win. Mark has a way of creating an environment of safety where people feel free to express themselves – it was a true bonding experience!

Rich Pernell, MS, CPF, CPM
Director – Organizational Development & Design
Human Resources
Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
Daytona Beach, Fl 32110-3900
(386) 226-6995 voice

Rita Avinger, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Director, Leadership Institute
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Voice: (386) 226-7004

Closing Thoughts

So, I am thankful for the opportunity to share my complex, ever evolving self with others and to be enriched and enlightened by head-and-heartfelt interaction – whether as writer, coach, or group facilitator.  I am grateful for my small yet meaningful victories, as I recover from the partnership breakup tsunami and rebuild a life.  To quote mid-19th century American transcendental philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

" To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of leave the world a better know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded. "

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Perhaps I have “succeeded” more than I realize, or give myself credit.  Fittingly, a final share which has often induced a knowing laugh from others.  Best wishes for a graceful holiday season.

Practice Safe Stress for the Holidays:
The 4 "F"s of Holiday Friction

While many associate the holidays with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and its theme of gaining and sharing the holiday spirit, the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities may have even more relevance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of time
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness...
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Like Dickens, I too have tried to capture the complexity of the holidays; if not through a great novel, then with my one classic holiday joke.  I realized with all this talk of pressure during the holidays, I needed to distinguish between "Holiday Blues" and "Holiday Stress."  Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can't be with those people who have been or are special and significant.  And holiday when you have to be with some of those people!

Email or send me a message on LinkedIn or Facebook to receive the entire essay.

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker, writer, and "Psychohumorist" ™, is a Leadership Consultant for the international Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University, HQd in Daytona, FL.  Mark is also a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative.  A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army.  The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, and Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World.  Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info, email:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

11/9: Have We Seen this Before? (Or, The Night of Broken Dreams)

Reading about the post-election wailing and grief or the counter-reaction of "stop the whining," helped me realize the personal value of my coping option: turning a political lemon into poetic lemonade. Enjoy...or not!

My biggest fear in this election campaign was that Donald Trump was providing a platform for social-cultural hatred, a hatred by a variety of supporters, surrogates, and sycophants.  Such flame-throwing typically targets groups based on race, ethnicity, nationality, geography, gender, sexual identity, and/or religion.  I don’t believe Mr. Trump is a fanatical hater, more a conditional one:  a) when someone rubs his ego the wrong way (alas, this happens too easily), b) when women complain Mr. T has “rubbed them the wrong way” (alas, this happens too frequently), and c) when he strategically or spontaneously bullies or demonizes “the other” to gain supporters and votes and win a “negotiation” or political battle.  I hope my fears are mostly baseless.  I pray (despite being a Jewish atheist) that the new President will resist the urge to Trumpism, to become a dictatorial, Putin-like “strong man” repressing dissenting voices and constitutional rights.  I will congratulate Mr. Trump hardily if he genuinely helps rebuild our infrastructure and the economic options and standing of working-class families.  In truth, many of his other avowed premises and promises frighten me – personally, for our democratic ethos, and for our fragile planet.  So, I will be vigilant.  To loosely quote Ronald Reagan:  warily trust and verify.  Until then…I versify!

11/9:  Have We Seen this Before?
(Or, The Night of Broken Dreams)

Please do not think me dumb
Or even merely craven, yet
Will 11/9 become
Our homegrown 9/11?

Ah, the ironic paradox
The choice of free election.
Have we unleashed Pandora’s Box:
A swarm of white-male venom?

Oh tell me Mr. Trumpty
How do you run on empty?
Oh tell me Humpty Trumpty
How many have you dumptied?

Forgive my taste in history
To look back does no good
Still…a little pre-war Germany
And streets running with blood?

Why am I compelled to rant?
Perhaps a mere sore loser.
Though not a recent immigrant
(More “word artist” itinerant)
For you…does my life matter?

Oh tell me Mr. Trumpty
Why are you so grumpty?
Oh tell me Trumpty Dumpty
How many have you humptied?

“Why are you so paranoid?”
“He will drain the swamp!”
I gaze into the krystal ** void:
One big internment camp!

I do not fear the Mighty Wall
For I will not be barred
But one and all, from grace may fall
When “vermin” are gold-starred. ***

** The choice of the “kystal” spelling is a blend of “crystal” and “Kristallnacht” also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass.   “Kristallnacht was a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians. German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had their windows smashed.

Estimates of the number of fatalities caused by the pogrom have varied. Early reporting estimated that 91 Jewish people were murdered during the attacks. Modern analysis of German scholarly sources by historians such as Richard J. Evans puts the number much higher. When deaths from post-arrest maltreatment and subsequent suicides are included, the death toll climbs into the hundreds. Additionally, 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps.” (Wikipedia)

*** During the Nazi reign, Jews in Germany (and elsewhere, I believe), were mandated to have gold Jewish Stars sewn on their outer garments, to single out and stigmatize them when in public, increasing their chance for ridicule and much worse intimidation.

© Mark Gorkin  2016
Shrink Rap ™ Productions

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker, writer, and "Psychohumorist" ™, is a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative.  He is also a "Leadership Consultant" for the international Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University, HQd in Daytona, FL.  A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army.  The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, and Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World.  Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info, email:

Friday, November 11, 2016

Transforming Loss and Memory into “Human Touch” Moments: Two Critical Incident Vignettes

What does “high tech” mean to you?  Making our old ways slow and useless” or “The far flung, wild creativity of our plug and play connected world” (Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense:  Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks, 2016)?  No doubt, the physical and psychic landscape and mindscape are being transformed by our always on and everywhere linked “Digital/Social Media Age.”  However, every once in a while, time and space slow down, if not come to a sudden halt; and I’m reminded of the critical importance of “human touch” in handling everyday life and death struggles.  Let me share two vignettes where high tech takes a back seat to human touch.

This week I did Critical Incident/Stress Management (CISM) work for a state government agency.  More specifically, I provided Grief Facilitation-Counseling both in groups and one-on-one for about forty employees who, just the day before, learned of the death of a beloved upper level administrator/manager. The news was as sudden as it was shocking.  R was forty-seven, seemingly healthy, married with two kids.  Towards the end of last week, he went home feeling bad…went to the hospital…and by Sunday night, incomprehensibly, he was dead from a stroke.

This was a mostly blue-collar crew – equally divided racially, more men than women, fairly wide age distribution, etc.  Many had expressed doubts about the value of this “grief stuff.”  However, by the end of our session, all expressed heartfelt appreciation.  One likened it to a family wake…where everyone has a chance to share a personal memory about or a shared moment with the deceased.  After people expressed their shock, or shed some tears, or made a point of saying how R was not like some of the other managers walking around, I guided the sharing thusly:  What’s one trait of R’s that you especially admired and might be willing to try and cultivate in yourself and “play forward” with others?  (In light of this universal outpouring, it seems especially significant that he’d only been with this facility for three years.  Many marveled at R’s personal-professional impact in such a relatively short period of time.)  Consider their “trait” list:

1.  He always listened, even when he didn’t agree with you; he would think about your position, at the same time acknowledging he may still see things differently.
2.  He was always personally willing to help resolve a bureaucratic or operational problem.
3.  He would go to bat for you when you needed an ally with the “higher ups.”
4.  He took the time to get to know you personally.
5.  You always knew where he stood; he didn’t play games (with your head).
6.  Yet, he was fun-loving; a game player who could take kidding, even criticism.
7.  He went out of his way to drop in and talk with folks, and for more than five minutes.  (One secretary expressed total surprise when, one day, R talked with her for forty minutes about her educational-professional goals, encouraging her to expand her horizon.)
8.  He was concerned about your career and would frequently be talking with you about it.
9.  He treated everyone fairly and with respect.  (It was only after the group session did I even discover that R was African-American.)  And…
10. He made you feel special!

Inspired Musings:  Endings and Beginnings

This was a “Human Touch” gentleman in a “High Tech” world…who was truly curious and concerned about his colleagues.  R’s essence touched hearts and minds, maybe even souls.  Reviewing this list, I can only say, from the perspective of the Jewish religion/culture, R would be considered a real “mensch,” a truly wise and caring, a down to earth good man.  One closing “human touch” observation:  though today technology appears omniscient and omnipotent, there are some human depths that still elude the digital.

Case in point:  my next vignette involves human intuition leading to a “mitzvah,” another Yiddish expression meaning a “blessing, or truly good, often compassionate deed.”  (I wonder if the subject of death and grief is a pipeline to memories of a language spoken in my childhood household, occasionally by my parents, but especially by a beloved grandmother.  A woman in a wheelchair, who lost both her legs, first to medical incompetence, then, years later, to diabetes…A woman who personified “human touch,” without speaking a word of English, and was truly a “mensch.”)

Connecting the Grieving:  Sisters in Sorrow

Shortly after the group gathering, I had a chance to sit down with various individuals; in this instance two experienced female administrators.  (One had to leave the group session early.  The other was stationed at another facility and had come by for an admin meeting.  Both seemed to have close working relations with R; the visitor knew him for fourteen years in other state agencies.  The two women, roughly similar in age, had never met; however, they had talked briefly on the phone.)  Both women had cried openly in my one-on-ones, expressing disbelief having seen R just the week before.  One, with a sense of irony, even expressed expecting R to show up at work, then exclaim it was all a “sick joke.”  I was talking with the visitor when the obvious hit me:  these two ladies should be commiserating with and supporting each other.  A new role – grief matchmaker was born!

I now asked the visiting admin if her collegial counterpart might join us.  A bit surprised, nonetheless she agreed.  I jumped up, went to the other’s office, and got quick consent.  (I had made a strong connection with her earlier.)  Suffice to say, the two symbolically fell in each other’s arms, alternatively providing “lean on me” shoulders for one another.  Perhaps the seeds of a sisterly bond were being nurtured.  And wouldn’t that be a fitting legacy:  in this time of tragedy, two women having a near-brotherly relation with R, discover their own kindred connection.  All I can say is amen and women to that!

Concluding Words and Question

A grief belief penned many years ago: 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 by connecting our authentic essence with a caring human touch, “the better angels of our nature” will surely rise once more.

The Last Question:  Must we wait for a tragedy to more purposefully and spontaneously engage in “human touch”…to make “high tech and human touch” equal workplace partners?

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker, writer, and "Psychohumorist" ™, is a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative.  Leadership Coach/Training Consultant for the international Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University at the Daytona, FL headquarters.  A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army.  The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World, and Fierce Longing…Fiery Loss:  Relearning to Let Go, Laugh & Love.  Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info, email:

Monday, November 7, 2016

Overcoming Tech Industry Burnout: Combat Strategies at the Burnout Battlefront

About ten days ago I was interviewed by a journalist for Dice Insights (DI).  DI shares insights and advice for the Tech Industry.  The exchange examined why working in the industry often predisposes folks to burnout...and what to do about it.  Author Leslie Stevens-Huffman did some fine writing and crafting, weaving her own thoughts and experience, some of my ideas (and first-hand, personal experience), along with views of a psychiatrist from Australia.

Actually, some of the ideas I introduced years back, in the national SHRM magazine.  The piece was partly inspired by helping many individuals in No. Virginia deal with stress and burnout after the 2000 tech meltdown.  Following the article by LSH, I've posted a somewhat upgraded version of, "Combat Strategies at the Burnout Battlefront." 

Tips for Overcoming Tech Industry Burnout

Leslie Stevens-Huffman, October 31, 2016 Working in Tech Search Dice Insights
Author Leslie Stevens-Huffman is a business and careers writer based in Southern California. She has more than 20 years’ experience in the staffing industry and has been writing blog posts, sample resumes and providing sage career advice to the IT professionals in our Dice Community since 2006. Leslie has a bachelor’s degree in English and Journalism from the University of Southern California.

Recent research has shown that many tech jobs—such as working in corporate IT departments—can create exhaustion, and lead in turn to depersonalization and diminishing achievement: the three central components of job burnout.

If you think you might be at risk of burnout, it’s best to take action before you lose your job or the daily grind starts affecting your health.

“Burnout is less a sign of failure and more a sign that you gave yourself away,” noted Mark Gorkin, a licensed clinical social worker and stress resilience expert. “Healing starts with knowing your limits and not limiting your ‘nos.’”

While burnout is serious, and a full recovery often requires professional help, here are some practical and realistic steps that you can take right away.

Develop an Exercise Routine
Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and help prevent the development of mental health problems. Just exercising for 20 to 30 minutes a day can extend your endurance and give you a sense of control and accomplishment.

If you feel guilty for taking an exercise break during work time, remember that there’s safety in numbers: form a walking group at the office and take a brisk walk during your allotted lunch hour. Pushing the boundaries by taking measured-yet-purposeful steps to improve your working conditions can help preserve your energy and focus.

Take on a Side Project or a Different Role
While most people think that job burnout results from working too hard, that’s not always the case, advised Dr. Michael Leiter, a professor in the School of Psychology at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia and an expert in employee burnout.

“It usually results from overdoing one dimension of yourself,” Leiter explained. In other words, you may be a candidate for burnout if your job is repetitive, limited in scope or emotionally unfulfilling.

Transferring to a different project or role that gives you more latitude to make decisions (or requires a broader range of skills) can recharge your batteries without letting your technical knowledge grow stale.

Many companies have recognized the benefits of diverse assignments, and now allow employees to pursue side projects or hobbies. Once you’ve begun the healing process, consider moving to a more healthy and balanced work environment.

Find a Stress Buddy
A stress buddy is a trusted colleague or friend who will let you blow off steam in private when you feel frustrated or overwrought. He or she may notice perfectionistic tendencies and offer helpful advice without judging you. The relationships are usually reciprocal, and helping someone think differently about a stressful situation may benefit you, as well.

N and N is Just as Important as R and R
Tech pros often get burnt out because they refuse to set boundaries or let go of certain aspects of the job. Gorkin maintains that saying “no” to a task or negotiating more reasonable workloads and expectations is just as important as time off when it comes to maintaining a healthy emotional state; Leiter agrees.

Interspersing short periods of less challenging work throughout the day can help build endurance in workers who perform repetitive tasks that require high levels of concentration and attention to detail, Leiter added: “Marathon runners don’t sprint the entire way… high intensity intermittent exercise helps runners run faster, stronger and longer without getting tired.”

Soothe Your Soul
There’s scientific proof that laughter combats depression, increases resilience and reduces the stress response. If your funny bone has atrophied, reading a humorous book or watching some classic comedy films may help revive your spirit. Journaling is another effective technique for reducing stress.

If your self-help attempts fail, seek confidential counseling through your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or health insurance plan. In extreme cases, it’s very difficult to overcome burnout on your own.

Combat Strategies at the Burnout Battlefront

Today’s world is 24/7, wired and always on and often cycling between upgrading and reorganizing--if not outsourcing and downsizing. And as company mantras become “do more with less,” it’s no surprise that more and more people are struggling with job stress and burnout.

By Mark Gorkin, LICSW

The Erosive Spiral
The classic set-up for burnout is a professional or personal situation that places high ongoing demands and responsibilities upon you while restricting your sense of control, autonomy and/or authority. Inflexibly high expectations and elusive goals only add fuel to the fire. Consider this: If, no matter what you do or how hard you try, results, rewards, recognition and relief are not forthcoming and you can’t say and mean “no” or won’t let go, trouble awaits. The groundwork is laid for apathy, callousness and despair.

Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism and confusion--a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give.

The Four Stages of Burnout

Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion is the first stage of burnout. Do you recognize this sequence? Maybe you are still holding it together at work, but as soon as you get home you go right for the fridge, turn on the TV, hit the sofa and are comatose for the rest of the evening. Normally you pride yourself on doing a thorough job. But budget cuts have you looking for shortcuts, if not cutting corners, and this gnaws at your self-esteem. A case of the “brain strain” is developing, accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion.

Shame and doubt manifest themselves in the second stage of burnout. For example, if your supervisor asks you to take on a new assignment your first reaction is to be helpful, but suddenly a voice inside screams, “Are you kidding?” You’re feeling shaky in the present and losing confidence about managing the future--you can even start discounting past accomplishments. Remember, this is not a logical process but a psychological one.

Cynicism and callousness are how people often respond to feeling vulnerable. They put their guard up and look out for No. 1. In the short run this strategy may work, but over time this hard exterior can become a heavy burden. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more a sign that you gave yourself away. Not surprisingly, you can become resentful and feel that people are taking advantage of you. Sensitive individuals begin developing calloused skin for self-protection.

This stage of burnout doesn’t just facilitate a hardening of the psyche. When your stress starts to smolder and turns to frustration and anger it can lead to a hardening of the arteries. High blood pressure, hypertension, cardiovascular complications, even heart attacks and strokes are potential health risks.
Failure, helplessness and crisis are symptoms of the fourth stage of burnout. And while it sounds terrible, consider this: hitting bottom means there’s no more downward spiral. And if you can reach out, there’s nowhere to go but up. Being caught in a career catch-22 often signals the final stage. Burnout is like trying to run a marathon at full speed. Without pacing, the body parts wear out, and the mental apparatus breaks down. In fact, one reason the fourth stage is so disorienting psychologically is that there are cracks in your defensive armor.
Fourth-stage burnout is the crisis point. Are you ready to reach out for the help and resources you need? A person recovers and expands his or her strengths and possibilities by:
  • Getting proper support from a professional trained in crisis intervention and loss;
  • Confronting denial, false hopes, cynicism and helplessness;
  • Grieving past and present losses, while turning guilt, anxiety and aggression into focused energy; and
  • Acquiring skills and technology for transforming new awareness and motivation.
Rehabilitation and Rejuvenation
While the erosive spiral of burnout is dangerous, it also provides opportunity for growth. I know from personal experience. Back in the 1980s, I was an unrealistic doctoral student. Low self-esteem and determination to silence critics and doubters had me trying to turn a mystical-like experience in psychoanalysis into a doctoral dissertation. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say I was definitely off the ivy-covered wall. And for several months, I was sidelined by exhaustion, existential emptiness and frightening, stress-induced dizzy spells. Fortunately, a silver lining emerged from the academic ashes. I became an expert on stress and burnout eventually evolving a self-care, recovery and prevention process.

It took several months of grieving and tending to mind-body wounds to recover. I needed to know that significant others still loved and respected me despite my feelings of academic failure. You may need a mentor or a counselor to reconfirm your pre-crisis identity; to help you see strengths when you are fixated on your weaknesses. And the earlier one can begin grieving and “letting go,” the easier for emotional catharsis to become a tool for rebuilding healthy purpose and passion.

Six Rs of Burnout Recovery

Running – Get moving with 30-40 minutes of exercise, such as jogging, brisk walking, cycling or swimming, which will get those disposition-enhancing endorphins pumping. The chemical influx helps slow a racing mind and helps lift a sluggish mood. There’s a beginning and end point for a tangible sense of control and accomplishment. Your routine becomes a success ritual fueling burnout recovery.

Reading – Turn to humorous novels or cartoon books to add some absurdity, if not levity, to your perspective. Hearty laughter also releases endorphins, giving vital organs a brief but vigorous internal massage.

Retreating – Take time to reflect on this ego- and identity-shattering experience and answer some of the big, existential questions: What are my skills, gifts and talents? What are my emotional, knowledge and learning gaps? The blank canvas is scary--but also exciting. To paraphrase poet Walt Whitman: Follow the open road and discover or recover your soul.

Writing – Research indicates that taking the time to express and analyze your emotions through writing provides a stress-relieving anchor in a stormy, troubled sea. Reflective writing can also be a source of self-in your old selfdiscovery--a tool for your healing, understanding and action.

Relating – When it comes to dealing with stress, in general, men pursue the "fight or flight" strategy as control and pride often come into play.  Conversely, women are more comfortable with a "tend and befriend" approach; relationship building is more often their driver.  Which do you think is the overall healthier strategic and stress-relieving response?

Risk-taking – After grieving and gradually reversing the erosive spiral, with a greater understanding of your fallacies and defects, renewed confidence in your existing strengths and a growing thirst to explore future options, you just may be ready to begin "designing disorder."

Shake Things Up
Rebuilding may involve shaking up the personal-professional puzzle, exploring anew or even returning to one’s passionate roots. This might include job or career path changes.
  • Restructure current roles and responsibilities; work in another department or division.
  • Take a sabbatical or travel.
  • Consult independently or work for a foundation, an association or an institute.
  • Go back to school to pursue a heartfelt interest, or even return to the classroom as an educator.
  • Go into business for yourself or, if you’re self-employed and running on empty, join a company.
  • Recover a previous creative pursuit and turn it into a career path or, perhaps, balance a job with a passionate hobby.
  • Pursue a different professional setting or field or a new geographical location.
Burnout Prevention Strategies
Burnout evokes an experience of loss--from loss of control or abandoning a cherished goal to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. However, wrestling with loss often yields renewed energy and transitional possibilities.

To reduce chronic stress and prevent burnout, the Stress Doc prescribes natural SPEED.

Sleep – While recent research questions the health benefits of excessive sleep (more than eight hours) a pattern of less than six hours for most people yields a loss of mental sharpness. Also, sleep research supports brief napping (10 to 40 minutes) during the day for mind-body rejuvenation.

Priorities – Focus on the essentials when trying to be productive. To meet expectations and to achieve goals, it’s often vital to establish limits and set boundaries. Learn to say no and to negotiate. Tactfully yet assertively discuss what’s urgent versus what’s important.

Empathy – Listening to or supporting others can be stress relieving, just make sure the shoulder lending is not a one-way transaction. At work and/or in your home life, have at least one stress buddy with whom you can let your hair down.

Exercise – The benefit of regular exercise is both physical and psychological. Thirty minutes of vigorous activity releases endorphins--natural mood enhancers and pain relievers in the brain.

Diet – A diet high in saturated fats (red meat, high-fat dairy) and simple sugars (sodas, cookies and excessive chocolate) induces drowsiness and mental torpor, not to mention clogged arteries. And too much alcohol and caffeine is a roller coaster headache--moodiness or depression often follows aggression and agitation. Balancing protein, fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, grains, nuts and plenty of water is vital for optimal energy and alertness along with cardiovascular health.

Psychological Hardiness
Psychological hardiness is a concept developed by Dr. Suzanne Kobasa and her research team while studying the health of AT&T executives during the stressful breakup of “Ma Bell.” Some execs were having a hard time physically and emotionally, while others were coping effectively with the transitional storm. The hardiest executives demonstrated what I call the four C’s of psychological hardiness.

Commitment – While not happy about the major restructuring and resulting turbulence, the hardiest executives did not give up; they were determined to do quality work. They also had a life outside the office and received support from family, friends, colleagues and spiritual activities, as well as from hobbies. Hobbies allow you to take time out and to stimulate and nurture yourself.

Control – The hardy execs also had a realistic sense of control and less rigid need to wield it. They understood the necessity of giving up some turf positions and status posturing. Letting go of your cherished territory often provides a new vantage point for strategically surveying the emergent big picture.

Change – The hardy individuals had a realistic attitude toward change. For them, change was a natural part of life, not something to be resisted. Even when facing unpleasant or unhappy changes, they quickly grappled with their emotions. They grieved the loss of their familiar world, and then prepared themselves for the new or unknown. With this enlightened perspective, change was more a stepping-stone than a stumbling block.

Conditioning – Finally, the most hardy of the execs engaged in regular aerobic exercise or physical conditioning. Why is it so critical? As we’ve seen, not only does exercise help you stay fit, manage your weight and improve your cardiovascular health, but it also releases mood-lifting endorphins, a good antidote to mild feelings of agitation and/or depression. Also, when everything’s up in the air--you can’t seem to close any projects or sales or meet elusive deadlines--structured exercise provides a self-defined beginning and endpoint.

When you add natural SPEED to your routine and emulate the hardiest executives, you will have established a work world and a lifestyle that is balanced, has boundaries and also is bursting with energy. You have an awareness and action plan that prevents stress smoke signals from smoldering and erupting into that burnout fire. You will have truly learned how to practice safe stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker, writer, and "Psychohumorist" ™, is a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative.  Leadership Coach/Training Consultant for the international Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University at the Daytona, FL headquarters.  A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army.  The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, and Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World.  Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info, email: