The following article was written by Andrew Bustamante, who is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer.
Recently I was asked to accept a private intel contract I never thought I’d see…
At first I was interested in pursuing this contract not because the prospective client is big, famous, or well-known, but because I have never looked at the spying business in terms of mental health and self-care before.
After considering the contract in some depth I felt it it would be best if I turned it down.
However, whilst considering the contract I was impressed by how many things the IC (intelligence community) does well (and not so well) in order to support the mental health of its field officers whilst they are on live assignments. This is why I have written this article.
It seems that whilst in the field, the mental health of its agents is always a priority – in fact the industry treat it as a core element in any operation.
However, that doesn’t mean they prioritise it first.
In fact, they often appear to poach time and resources away from their operatives mental health routines in order to ensure that their intel and security programs are fully staffed.
It seems to me that this is the ultimate example of robbing Peter to pay Paul, right!?!
Every year CIA etches new stars on the memorial wall – honoring the undercover heroes who died in the line of duty.
There are over 130 stories that can never be told, heard, or shared – that puts an incredible burden on the families of the fallen, those still serving in the field, and the thousands of agents that walk past the same wall every day at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA.
‘Name it To Tame it’
CIA trains officers to offset their mental health drain by training them to recognise and respect their emotions.
It’s a technique sometimes known as, ‘name it to tame it.’
This is how it works:
When you have a feeling, tell someone – your spouse, your peer, your mailman – it really doesn’t matter. But say the words out loud and name your strongest emotion.
“I feel sad right now,” or “I am really angry,” or “I feel locked in fear,” are all examples of naming the emotions that can lead to mental health issues if left unchecked.
When you identify a dominant emotion and acknowledge that feeling by saying it out loud, you reduce its power over you.
Yes, I know it sounds like hippie kum-ba-ya campfire peace-pipe crap to some of you, but that doesn’t change the science behind it.
Researchers have found that labelling an emotional feeling out loud has two powerful side effects:
- It deactivates the emotional center of your brain (the amygdala).
- It activates the logical and rational part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex).
So with one short sentence like, “I feel guilty about not calling my mom today,” you can ‘turn off’ your brain’s ability to dwell on the emotion (amygdala) and ‘turn-on’ the part of your brain that processes emotions quickly (prefrontal cortex).
That’s like mental magic to anyone who suffers from emotional highs and lows!
Right now, I feel happy and confident; and I’m telling you about it so my brain can process the emotions effectively.
I feel like I’m sharing powerful info with you that you are going to use to do something awesome today.
Whether you do or not is up to you, but telling you how I feel frees me from a potential mental health rollercoaster.
I hope you do the same thing. Because your emotions have a place…
However, that place is not in the middle of your undercover op.
Nowadays spies are romanticised in popular culture. We seem to be living in a golden age of spy fiction and spy movies. I often wonder if the fascination will ever wane.
What is it? The allure of a parallel world, hidden before our very eyes? Being able to make a difference to national security? Like some kind of a James Bond?
Finding out what it’s like to live under-cover certainly sounds appealing. Adopting an alias, developing your own cover story and swapping highly sensitive intelligence is indeed a thrilling thought.
At first glance these attributes seem an obvious lure for potential spies.
However, in the real world what can potential spies and under-cover operatives expect to experience first-hand?
Certainly they will learn all the basic tradecraft skills such as brush contacts, the use of encrypted communications and the techniques involved in making a cold-approach to a potential informant.
However, in the process people who learn to spy also learn a lot about themselves.
Whilst learning about yourself may sound like an inherently self-centered goal, but it is actually an unselfish process that is at the root of everything we do in life.
In order to be the most ‘valuable spy‘ in the world, every operative has to first know who they are, what they value and, in effect, what they have to offer.
This is a very personal journey and one that every spy will benefit from taking.
It’s a matter of them recognising their personal power, whilst remaining open (and sometimes vulnerable) to their operational experiences.
This journey isn’t something to fear or avoid, whilst berating yourself along the way. No it is a journey to seek out with the curiosity and compassion that we would have towards a fascinating new friend.
“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”
Peace and tranquility.
Author: Andrew Bustamante.
Edited by: RamblinginPen