"Dude....What Happened To My Mental Health?"

Criteria of psychological health no longer fit today's world

Posted Apr 26, 2010

In my initial post for this new blog "The New Resiliency," I wrote that the theme of my posts will be why you need new kind of emotional resiliency for success and well-being in today's world, and how you can build it. My subsequent posts have been about what that means for your relationships with lovers....and others.

Here, I'm taking a step back and looking at what the new resiliency means more broadly -- for your overall psychological health. Just as we need to redefine resiliency, I think we also need to reformulate what a psychologically healthy adult looks like in this transformed world we're now living in.

Locked Into 20th Century Thinking

Throughout most of the last century, our mental health professions have largely equated adult psychological health with good management and coping skills. That is, managing stress within your work and personal life -- and we know there's plenty of that; and, effective coping with or (hopefully) resolving whatever emotional conflicts you brought with you into adulthood.  And don't kid yourself: everybody brings along some.

So, in your work that definition of mental health might include, for example, being clear about your career goals, and behaving in ways that work your way up a fairly predictable set of steps. The aim: achieving power, recognition and financial success - all of which we've more or less equated with adult maturity and mental health.

And at home, the traditional criteria would include forming a long-term relationship that endures the power struggles and other differences that often lead to affairs or even divorce. We assume that the healthy adult does that via compromise at best, or disguised manipulation at worst. In addition, you would accept "normal" decline of intimate connection and vitality over time.

But the fallout from the worldwide upheaval and transformation that's been steadily occurring over the last few years has turned all those criteria of health upside down.  Ironically, most of us mental health professionals have been oblivious to the impact of those changes upon people, psychologically.

To be clear, it's important to be able to manage conflicts that could derail your career or personal life. But doing that isn't enough to ensure future success, sanity or well-being in this turbulent and highly interdependent, interconnected world. In fact, massive, interconnected forces within this unpredictable world add a host of new emotional and behavioral challenges to living a psychologically healthy, well-functioning and fulfilling life.

How People Suffer

I deal with the fallout almost daily: Men and women who've functioned pretty well in the past, but now feel as if they're standing on tectonic plates shifting beneath them. Despite their best efforts, they struggle with mounting anxiety about the future of their own and their children's lives.  They experience confusion about their values and life purpose.

There's the former Wall Street financial executive who told me he'd always defined himself by "making it through the next end zone" in his career, working long hours to ensure financial success. Now, as his company - and career - crumbled, he found that in addition to sacrificing time with his family, he's sacrificed his health: He has diabetes and high blood pressure. "Kind of a reverse ‘deal-flow,' " he lamented to me.

And the management consultant, pressured to ratchet up her travel to keep her career on track. "I'd been coping with everything, I thought," she told me, "though I don't like needing Zoloft to do it." Instead of her career becoming more predictable as she gained seniority, her career propelled her into an even wilder ride. "Now I don't have enough time for my daughter or my husband," she said. "What kind of life is this? . . . My husband's checked out, emotionally. And what am I teaching my daughter?"

Or the lawyer, who'd prided himself on "eating what I kill, and I'm a good killer." He told me he has "more money than I ever dreamed of," but also says that, "secretly, I hate what I do for a living." But what's the alternative, he asks, without "...looking like a dysfunctional failure if I opt out?" After a failed marriage, he entered therapy and had begun to realize how his father's unfulfilled dreams of "success" have impacted his own life - when suddenly his father died. "I'm in a tailspin," he says; depressed and confused, now, about his whole life.

All of these people were on the kinds of life paths they expected would bring them predictable rewards, emotionally and materially. But counting on that linear upward climb, stable relationships and well-being is now hazardous to your mental health. In fact, the old path can make you more vulnerable to dysfunction and disturbance in the days ahead.

Welcome to the "New Normal"

To better understand the mental health of life in the new world environment as a guide to a better model of psychological health, let's look at what's changed in a bit more detail. Men and women are discovering - often painfully - that the emotional attitudes, goals and behavior they thought would lead to successful, fulfilling and emotionally positive lives suddenly leave them at a loss. They're faced with new psychological challenges from an environmentally fragile, diverse and unpredictable new environment. And they don't know how to respond.

We're now starkly aware that unforeseen circumstances can create widespread turmoil in all sorts of ways. For example, the actions of mortgage lenders in the U.S. triggered worldwide economic turmoil and upheaval that began in the fall of 2008 and continues to impact everyone's lives. Entirely new global business paradigms can create upstart competitors or put you out of business. Turbulent shifts in weather patterns, water and food shortages, and civil strife resulting from climate change impact everyone's future. And the threat of terrorism is a scary backdrop in everybody's lives.

It's as if we've all been deposited in the Brad Pitt movie "Babel," in which the inadvertent actions of two goat-herding boys have tragic consequences for lives on three continents. Welcome to the "butterfly effect," where a small change somewhere far away can produce far-ranging consequences. That's part of the "new normal."

Moreover, the interconnected world impacts us in other ways, with both positive and negative potential: People become almost instantly aware of human rights violations or natural disasters wherever they occur, and can respond with quickly organized charity efforts. And there's the potential for personally embarrassing moments to become instantly available, thanks to Google and YouTube. And, if you wish, your moment-to-moment activities can be disseminated around the globe through your Facebook and Twitter posts.

Other examples of the transformed world include companies shifting to green business because the impact of climate change has highlighted the need for sustainable business practices; needed, in order to stay competitive in a shifting global economy. More broadly, a new business model that combines financial success with serving the common good receives increasing attention. It's been raised in discussion at a recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and promoted by singer-social activist Bono and other social entrepreneurs.

These are among the many features of our "non-equilibrium world." They have the potential for major upheaval in your career and relationships; and, therefore, in your mental health, both at work and at home.

For example, in the workplace the management and business culture is increasingly unpredictable. Today's environment requires you to be constantly pro-active, innovative and creative on behalf of your own career development; and not take anything for granted. At the same time, both younger and older workers say they want their work to have impact on something larger and more meaningful than just their own personal gain, but without giving that up, either. What kinds of values and actions support doing that?

In personal lives outside of work, men and women increasingly seek relationships of respect, mutuality and authenticity, regardless of whether they take the form of traditional marriage or cohabitation; and whether they are man-woman or same-sex unions. Surveys show they don't want affairs; they would like lasting, connected, but equal partnerships, unfettered by old game-playing or "rules."  What attitudes and behavior does that require?

All of these shifts create significant new challenges for your psychological health. Just trying to "cope" with stress isn't enough. Trying to "balance" work and life doesn't work very well when things are always in a state of imbalance. Nor does managing your emotional conflicts from childhood, alone, help you find the healthiest ways to deal with new conflicts within our interconnected world. In future posts I'll describe the features of a new vision of psychological health -- and how you can build it in the different realms of your life.

My blog: Progressive Impact
Web site: Center for Progressive Development
© 2010 Douglas LaBier

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