The Psychologically Healthy Adult In A Globalized, Interconnected, UnpredictableAnd Often Scary World
by Douglas LaBier
Tuesday, November 7, 2008
The above link is to the condensed version of the full article, below:
What are the psychological keys to success and well-being at work and at home? Being able to manage the stresses of your work and personal life, you might say. And to cope with — if not fully resolve — whatever emotional conflicts you brought with you into adulthood.
In the office, you would probably be clear about meeting your career goals and working your way up a fairly predictable set of steps to achieve power, recognition and financial success. At home, having a relationship that withstands the power struggles and other differences that often lead to affairs or even divorce.
But like the stock market, that formula has taken a nosedive. Sure, it’s important to be able to manage conflicts that could derail your career or personal life. But it’s not enough anymore. That, alone, won’t produce success, sanity or well-being in today’s globalized, turbulent and highly interdependent world. In fact, it can make you more vulnerable to dysfunction and disturbance in the days ahead.
I write as a business psychologist and psychotherapist who is being confronted more and more often by men and women who are discovering — often painfully — that the emotional attitudes and behavior they thought would lead to successful, fulfilling and psychologically healthy lives suddenly leave them at a loss. They don’t know how to respond the new psychological challenges of life in today’s globalized, environmentally fragile, diverse and highly interdependent world. A world where the only constant is change, and where it seems as if everybody has to become skilled at simultaneously competing and collaborating with everyone from everywhere about almost everything.
Life In A Changing World
We’ve all become aware of how unforeseen circumstances can create widespread turmoil: Entirely new global business paradigms that create upstart competitors or put you out of business. Turbulent shifts in weather patterns, water and food shortages, and civil strife that result from global warming affect us all. The ill-defined threat of terrorism is a scary backdrop in everyone’s lives.
It’s as if we’ve all, unwittingly, been given roles 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,” in which a small change somewhere far away can produce far-ranging consequences. It’s now the norm, and shows itself in many ways that impact our lives.
For example, the actions of some mortgage lenders in the U.S. triggered worldwide economic turmoil and upheaval in people’s lives in the fall of 2008. Today, we become almost instantly aware of human rights violations wherever they occur – as well as personally embarrassing moments – thanks to Google and YouTube. People’s moment-to-moment activities are available around globe through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Or via self-created, virtual forms, such as Second Life.
Companies shift to “green” practices in response to the need for sustainable resources, in order to stay competitive in the global economy. More broadly, a new business model begins to take root that combines financial success with serving the common good, as discussed in the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and promoted by singer-social activist Bono and other social entrepreneurs. These shifts have the potential to change the face of business – and your life.
For example, in your workplace, today’s management and business culture is unpredictable. It requires you to be more pro-active, innovative and creative on behalf of your own career development. Both younger and older workers say they want their work to have impact on something larger and more meaningful than just personal gain. And outside of work, men and women increasingly seek relationships of respect, mutuality and authenticity, regardless of whether they take the form of traditional marriage.
All of these well-documented, steadily building forces create 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. Nor does managing your emotional conflicts from childhood help you find the healthiest ways to deal with the new ones in your adult life brought about by our interconnected world.
In short, massive, interconnected forces within this globalized, unpredictable world add a host of new emotional and behavioral stresses and challenges to living a psychologically healthy, well-functioning and fulfilling life.
I deal with the fallout almost daily: I see people who’ve functioned pretty well, doing what they’ve learned is supposed to produce an emotionally secure, successful life, but now feel as if they’re standing on tectonic plates that are shifting beneath them. Despite their best efforts, they struggle with mounting stress, anxiety about the future of their own and their children’s lives, and confusion about their values and life purpose.
There’s the Wall Street banker 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, with his company – and career – collapsing, he finds that in addition to sacrificing time with his family, he has 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 becoming more predictable as she gained seniority, her career was taking her on 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’s prided himself on “eating what I kill, and I’m a good killer.” He tells 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 his father suddenly died. “I’m in a tailspin,” he says; depressed and confused about what his own purpose in life is.
All of these people were on the kinds of career paths they expected would bring them predictable rewards. But that linear upward climb has become hazardous.
No Adult In Sight
A major reason is that they, like most people, have unknowingly embraced a picture of adult psychological healthy adult that doesn’t really describe an adult. Nor, for that matter, does it describe psychological health.
Let me explain: We’ve learned to think of psychological health as the relative absence of definable psychiatric symptoms. That’s like defining a happy person as someone who’s not depressed. Moreover, our implicit view of a healthy adult is, in effect, that of a well-adapted, well-functioning child, or a sibling who interacts appropriately with other siblings. Either way, it’s a person within a world shaped and run by “parents,” psychologically speaking.
That is, we pretty much equate healthy functioning with effective management or resolution of child- or sibling-based conflicts. The mostly child-based conflicts include impulse control; narcissistic or grandiose attitudes; traumas produced by indifference, abandonment, abuse, or parenting that otherwise damages your adult capacity for intimacy or trusting relationships.
Healthy resolution of sibling-type conflicts include learning effective ways to compete with other “siblings” at work or in your intimate relationships; handling your fears of success or disapproval; managing passive-aggressive, manipulative or other self-undermining tendencies; and finding ways to perform for those, especially in the workplace, whose approval, acceptance and reward we crave.
It’s no surprise, then, that many people report feeling and behaving like children in a grown-up world. Examples permeate popular culture: The popular TV show, “The Office” often portrays the eruption of sibling-type conflicts, as the workers act out their resentments or compete with one another to win the favor of office manager Michael, another grown-up child who is self-serving and clueless about his own competitive motives and insecurity.
Unconscious child-type conflicts are often visible within intimate relationships and family life, as well, and provide a steady stream of material for novels and movies. You can see, for example, fears of abandonment in a man who demands constant attention and assurance that he’s loved; or low-self worth in a woman who’s unconsciously attracted to partners who dominate or manipulate her.
Of course it’s critical to manage effectively any emotional damage you’ve brought from your early experiences into adulthood. But that’s a basis for adult psychological health; it’s not sufficient. A well-adapted member of a community of other “children” and “siblings” within a psychological world of “parents” is not the same thing as a healthy adult in today’s globalized world.
Without a picture of what a healthy adult would feel, think and do in our globalized culture, you’re left with questions, but few answers. For example:
- How do you maintain the mental focus to keep your career skills sharp and stay on a successful path at work when you suddenly acquire a new boss who wants to take things in a new direction? Or if your company may be acquired by another, or go out of business?
- How can you best respond, mentally, if you have a new baby and a drop in family income at the same time that globalization sidetracks your career?
- How do you handle the pressure to work longer or do more business travel when your spouse faces the same demands?
- What’s the healthiest way to keep your relationship vital – or avoid the temptation of an affair?
- And how do you deal emotionally with the threat of terrorism — always lurking in the background of your mind — and enjoy life at the same time?
The Psychology of Google
My 35 years’ experience helping men and women deal with change and conflict in the business world and in personal life — men and women looking for greater meaning and impact from their work, beyond just power or money; company leaders seeing the connection between long-term financial success and environmental and social responsibility; people trying to heal emotional conflicts in their personal lives – my work with them leads me to believe that we need a new, more relevant description of adult psychological health, one that assumes new domestic and global uncertainties can hit home any day; one you can use as a guide for yourself and for helping your children prepare for a future whose biggest constant will be change.
Today’s interconnected, globalized world requires that you develop the “psychology” of Google. That is, if Google were a person, it displays, in many respects, the model of a psychologically healthy adult in today’s world. Its corporate culture and management practices depend upon qualities like transparency, flexibility and collaboration with diverse people; non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mind-set and nimbleness, all aimed at aggressively competing for clear goals within a constantly evolving environment.
Learn To “Forget” Yourself – The New Criteria
A successful and psychologically healthy life reflects building those qualities into your emotional attitudes, mental perspectives and behavior. In a sense, that means learning to “forget yourself.”
That is, qualities we’ve long admired but never thought absolutely necessary, such as cooperation and altruism, have become both survival skills and keys to competitiveness for each of us and for the global community. Confining your view of health and success to good “management” of your conflicts keeps you too focused on self-interest, especially power, money, possessions.
In contrast, a successful and psychologically healthy adult subordinates self-interest to the common good; to serving something larger than just yourself; not just your narrow goals.
Self-interest is an ineffective strategy in today’s interconnected world. It leaves you feeling like a vulnerable child rather than an adult, when forces outside your control disrupt your world and your self-centered goals. Of course, we have to take care of ourselves. But banking just on self-interest to achieve long-term success and well-being is like expecting to get to a destination while standing in place because you’re more comfortable there.
A psychologically healthy adult today is aware that his own well-being is intertwined with that of others who share this global community. He embraces the notion that all of us are parts of an interdependent whole, like organs of the same body. She learns to become proactive, innovative and creative; enjoys growing and developing within a changing environment; values positive connection and is flexible in situations of conflict.
Overall, being an adult – the “parent,” yourself — requires broadened, tolerant perspectives and purposeful actions in the service of clear objectives. That’s the foundation for supporting the well-being and survival of the global community, including future generations. In effect, it’s being an engaged global citizen.
That may sound like a tall order, but those are human, not super-human capacities, and they exist within most everyone. Ask yourself, who among us wouldn’t feel greater pleasure from sharing your food with someone who is starving than from eating it all yourself? Only the most deeply narcissistic.
Here are some guidelines:
Six Steps Towards Long-Term Psychological Health
Loosen the grip of self-interest
Use self-awareness to observe – and contain – your self-serving tendencies. It’s human to have them; healthy, to keep them at bay. Your emotional well-being and success in the world is interwoven with how well you engage and connect with something larger than your own needs and desires. Don’t neglect them, but when they dominate your field of vision, your heart shuts down. You can’t build the tolerance and proactive behavior that you need to keep “evolving.” An old saying goes, “If you want to see into your future, look into a mirror.” Everything you think, say, and do, steadily molds who you’re becoming down the road. What do you see in that mirror?
Practice connection and engagement
The metaphor of Google that I used above is a good guide for stretching yourself towards actions and attitudes that promote positive engagement. Aim for greater collaboration, non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mindset, flexibility, and nimbleness. Assess yourself along these criteria — in your life as a worker, in your relationships, and as a member of the larger human community. Identify which of those criteria you could strengthen, and begin to do it.
Identify your commonalities with others
Focus on what you have in common with others rather than on the surface differences between you. That builds empathy, especially important for success within an increasingly diverse society. Research shows that you can train your brain to do this. Begin by stepping outside your own mental and emotional perspectives and visualize entering another person’s inner world. Seek to understand it, no matter how different from your own. Remember, what’s “right” from one perspective may be “wrong” from another. Empathy is a core ingredient of adult psychological health. It helps expand your mental and emotional perspectives to more fully understand those with whom you have differences – without having to abandon your own views.
Reduce the gaps between your public and private life
Politicians aren’t the only people whose public image is sometimes at odds with their private actions: We all have gaps between our motives or values and how we present ourselves in pubic. Aim for transparency in your interactions and transactions. Better it comes from you than from discovering it’s been posted on Google or YouTube. More deeply, reflect on unconscious attitudes that might drive your behavior. As the philosopher and mathematician Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons of its own, which Reason itself is unaware of.” Seek help when you suspect you’re being pulled by emotions or behavior you don’t understand or just can’t deal with. But find a mental health practitioner who’s tuned in to a more evolved, integrated picture of adult health.
Shift your perspective in difficult life situations
Too often, we personalize negative experiences and react with resentment or self-undermining actions. That’s another form of self-centeredness. Healthy adult behavior here means recognizing those tendencies in yourself but not indulging in them. In short, aim towards not taking things personally. Be “indifferent” to those reactions by focusing your energies instead on creating a pro-active, realistic strategy that either improves your situation or changes it. “Indifference” in this sense activates your creative problem-solving capacity for dealing with conflicts at home or at work.
Define your “life footprint.”
Imagine you have one or two years left to live. An unpleasant thought, for sure, but it can help in this way: Make a list of what you would want to contribute to the world through your emotional, intellectual and creative powers during your remaining time. This focuses you on thinking about what kind of “footprint” you want to leave on the larger community and the planet. What does that require of you, from this point forward? As an aid, write down how you currently apply your mental and emotional capacities, and what that means long-term. Think of your life as a work of art that you’re creating along the way. When you envision reaching the end-point, what will the picture look like that reveals your purpose for having been here? Do you want to make any changes, starting now?
There are people who are making the above shifts towards healthier lives. For example, the corporate executive who stepped back and identified new business opportunities through sustainable, “green” practices, and initiated them throughout the company. And, inspired by Bono’s (Product) Red campaign, he created a company project that supported a philanthropic goal. “It was time to bring my personal values into alignment with my business perspectives,” he said. Like others, he sees business success as interwoven with serving the common good.
Or the couple who revamped their relationship by reviewing what they wanted their “life footprint” to be. They realized they wanted a greater sense of connection and mutuality between themselves, but also through what they did with their talents and energies. One began a business that had been a longtime dream; the other moved to a company that provided more opportunity for growth and creative expression, but less money. “Sure, there are trade-offs,” one of them said, “but the bottom line is better for our lives. We feel more integrated, more engaged.”
The Three Responsibilities
Overall, the psychologically healthy adult displays three responsibilities through work and life. They can serve as helpful guidelines for everyone:
Responsibility for your own mind-body-spirit
It’s your job, alone, to continue learning and developing your emotional, mental, creative and physical capacities. These will help provide the flexibility and adaptability you need to deal with changes, good or bad. Don’t become like the character John Marcher in Henry James’ “The Beast In The Jungle,” who waited passively, believing that something significant was going to happen…and ended with a failed life.
Responsibility for those less able
You’ll grow through your efforts to help and support others who are less able than you to follow a healthy path in this world. Find someone who need and would welcome your aid, whether your children or family member. But stretch further, to include a stranger, or those within the extended world community who suffer from lack of clean water, from famine, disease or torture. Organizations and individuals who could use your help are a click away on the Internet.
Responsibility for the planet
Your actions at home or in your community can help maintain a healthy, sustainable planet for future inhabitants, including your own descendants. Or, they can further jeopardize the environment they will live in. Look at your own actions in your home, your community, and at work. Ask yourself, are you becoming a “good ancestor?”
© 2008 Douglas LaBier