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Obama, Empathy And The Supreme Court Nominee

April 30th, 2010

Well, people, it looks like the fight over the “e-word” has started again.  Remember last year, when President Obama said that the capacity for empathy was an important criteria for selecting a Supreme Court nominee?  He was quickly attacked by those who apparently heard “empathy” as a code word for some kind of ideological bias.  And shortly after, Obama backed off from using the term.

Last June, I wrote here about why I thought he should keep on using the word empathy, not back away from it.  I have a particular interest in the subject, having written about our national “empathy deficit disorder” in The Washington Post a few years ago — and which I recently updated on my Psychology Today blog.  During last year’s Supreme Court nomination process, critics distorted what empathy is.  It’s  actually the capacity to experience what another person experiences.  It’s what gives you the capacity for wisdom, perspective and sound judgment; not bias or distortion or being bamboozled into the other’s point of view.

Nevertheless, as Obama decides who to nominate as Justice Stevens’ replacement, it’s like Yogi Berra said: “It’s déjà vu, all over again.”

To wit: A recent article in  The New York Times asks if  Obama is looking for empathy “by another name.”  The piece, by Peter Baker, points out that

A year after Mr. Obama made “empathy” one of his main criteria in picking his first Supreme Court justice, he is avoiding the word, which became radioactive, as he picks his second nominee. Instead, he says he wants someone with “a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.”

Baker goes on to say,

The issue is more than semantic. …The president emphasizes that while adhering to the rule of law, judges should also be able to see life through the eyes of those who come before the bench. His critics call that a prescription for twisting decisions to reach a desired outcome…..

The dispute became so contentious last year that even Mr. Obama’s nominee for the court, Sonia Sotomayor, disavowed the notion of empathy during hearings before her confirmation, saying that “judges can’t rely on what’s in their heart.”

In the same vein, Lee Epstein, a constitutional scholar at the Northwestern University School of Law, said in the Times piece, “You hear ‘empathy’ and you don’t think impartiality, judicial temperament.”

And getting right to the “heart” (whoops, sorry!) of the matter,

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “It seems to be calling again for judges to be less committed to fidelity to the law and calling for them to reach decisions that somehow endeavor to decide who ought to win.”

All of this posturing should be exposed for the ignorance and manipulation it contains, and presented in hopes that the public will buy it.  We need to emphasize why empathy is a plus, an inborn capacity, and the basis of healing the serious wounds in our global society, as Jeremy Rifkin has written in The Empathic Civilization.  But as far as the relevance of empathy to the Supreme Court issue, The Nation’s  Katrina vanden Heuvel, writing in The Washington Post, put it in proper context:

Is it better to have a corporate stooge on the bench than someone capable of understanding how his or her decisions will affect 300 million fellow citizens? Better to have a biased judge than a humane one, a dishonest justice instead of one who’s insightful?  It… goes to show how hysterical those critics have become about empathy.

It’s sad and discouraging to witness fear-fueled distortions coming from elected officials and others.  I hope that President Obama returns to his well-founded support for empathy as a criteria.  It’s especially important at this time in our history when we need more, not less empathy, not only in a Supreme Court justice, but in our society at large, to help face and solve major problems that confront us – economically, socially, psychologically.  As I wrote previously, in the Bible King Solomon asked God for “a heart that listens.” Notice that he didn’t ask for “a head that thinks.” Read more…

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Learning To “Forget Yourself”

April 26th, 2010
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“Becoming Sane…”  Part IV

In Part III of “becoming sane….” I wrote that our prevailing model of psychological health needs revision for today’s world – for outward success in a changing world, and for internal well-being.  I concluded by saying that a key to emotional resiliency and, more broadly, psychological health, in current times is learning to “forget yourself.”

So what does that mean?  Not thinking about your own needs?  Not looking out for yourself?  Not quite.  I’m using the phrase “forget yourself” to highlight an important capacity for health, survival, and “happiness” in today’s tumultuous, interconnected environment: the capacity to focus more on problems, needs, and solutions beyond just your own.  That is, the person who is too absorbed in his or her own self, own conflicts, own disappointments, and the like is much less able to engage the larger dilemmas and issues in positive, solution-oriented ways.  And that deficiency circles back to create dysfunction, damaged relationships, and career downturns.

Along the way I’ll be writing more about specific ways you can learn to “forget yourself” in your work, your relationships and your role as a global citizen. Here are some guidelines that help lay the foundation.

Three Responsibilities:

Think about your responsibilities as a human being living in today’s world, and on this planet.  Specifically, consider the following three responsibilities. They can serve as helpful guidelines for moving through and beyond the tendency we all share — to focus too much on our own selves.

Responsibility for your own mind-body-spirit

Recognize that it’s your job, alone, to continue learning and developing your emotional, mental, creative and physical capacities. Enlarging these capacities helps 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 up with a failed life.

Responsibility for those less able

Part of the new criteria for psychological health include this awareness:  You grow through your efforts to help and support others, less able than yourself, to find and follow a healthy path in this world. Find someone who needs 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

Reflect on the fact that 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?”

Some Steps You Can Take:

Loosen the grip of self-interest

Use self-awareness to observe – and contain – your Read more…

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The Paradox of Indifference – The Key To A Revitalized Relationship

April 22nd, 2010

Nora, 43, has a successful career as a free-lance magazine writer with two children.  She’s been married for 15 years to Ken, a media executive.  They’re typical of many couples today — committed to their relationship and family as much as to their careers. Yet something troubles them. It’s what’s happened along the way during their marriage.

There’s nothing “wrong” with it, exactly. But the excitement and energy, the feelings of connection and passion that were once there have gradually faded over the years.  “The old feelings haven’t exactly disappeared,” Nora says. “Now and then it feels something like it used to. But mostly it feels like our relationship has ‘flatlined.’”

Another person, David, recently celebrated the eleventh anniversary of his second marriage.  He describes a similar shift a bit more sardonically, saying that his relationship has settled into a state of “depressing comfortableness.”  He’s thought about having an affair.

If these laments sound familiar to you, it’s likely because most men and women find that their long-term marriages (I’m defining “marriage” to describe all committed relationships, straight or gay) tend to head south over time.

Gradually, they descend into what I call the Functional Relationship.

Most people think it’s inevitable, but there’s a unique way to liberate yourself from it.  It’s learning to “leave” your relationship in order to transform it.  You do that through becoming “indifferent.”

First, let’s look at what typically happens in the Functional Relationship.  The relationship continues to “work” fairly well, but mostly in a transactional way, around the logistics of daily life: “I thought you were taking the car in for repair.” “Whose turn is it to take the kids to soccer practice on Saturday?”

Sometimes, it becomes more adversarial: “Why did you schedule the plumber for tomorrow when you knew you couldn’t be here? I told you that I have a meeting I can’t miss.”

But even when “functioning” goes fairly smoothly, feelings of passion or even fun just hanging out together diminish, especially in contrast to how it felt early on in the relationship.  As I’ve studied contemporary marriages in our post-9-11/post-economic meltdown-world of the 21st Century, I find that couples experience this diminishment in three main ways:

  • Decreased emotional intimacy and sharing of feelings.
  • Less equality in decisions and daily interactions, which are often tinged by power-struggles and silent maneuvering for the “upper hand.”
  • And dampened sexuality, both in quantity and quality.

A note about that third item: Even when arousal is jacked up by Viagra or the new products purporting to enhance women’s desire, your libido — desire for the person you’re with — remains diminished.  That’s no surprise, because the latter is relationship-dependent. It remains unaffected even if you’re physiologically able to become aroused.

Overall, couples in a Functional Relationship report a diminished sense of connection with each other.  Sometimes it’s a feeling of not being on the same wave-length.

Most people assume that the Functional Relationship is completely “normal;” just a sad reality of adult life. Some are resigned to it as just one more part of the “long slide home,” as one 47-year-old journalist described his experience of midlife. Of course, not everyone feels so bleak, but many would agree with this woman’s lament about her 18-year relationship: “What was once a bright flame has turned into a pilot light.”

You, too probably assume that romantic and sexual connections are supposed to fade over time. Common sense seems to tell you so. After all, you’re seeing the same person day-in and day-out, not just when he or she is most attractive.  And like the majority of couples today, you’re probably dealing with the impact of multitasking, dual-career lives. Raising children in addition absorbs enormous time and energy.  Just trying to carry on in this uncertain, unpredictable world adds another huge layer of stress.

If everyday experience doesn’t convince you that the Functional Relationship is inevitable, there are the pronouncements of various experts. For example, some researchers claim that brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine, associated with sexual excitement or desire, decline with familiarity. At the same time, oxytocin and endorphins, which generate feelings of quiet comfort and calm, rise. Therefore, they say, you are going to feel diminished desire for your partner over time.

Many marriage and relationship experts advocate just accepting this decline and learning to be happy with it. For example, in her  book Surrendering to Marriage Iris Krasnow advocates learning to appreciate and live with the security and comfort that come along with the “inevitable” decline — unless, of course, you want to go down the slippery slope of an affair, or dumping your partner altogether and look for a new one.   It’s easy to think it’s best to stop complaining about what you don’t have and learn to live with lowered expectations.

If all of the above is really true, then you’d better resign yourself to the fact that a “passionate marriage” is an oxymoron.

But before you do that, consider this: Descending into the Functional Relationship is neither natural nor inevitable.  True, the experience is widespread. But most people descend into the Functional Relationship because it’s the natural outcome of how you learn to engage in love relationships to begin with.  As I wrote in a previous post, it’s a version of adolescent romance. Its features — like intense arousal by a new person; infatuation, often followed by deflation; manipulating and game-playing, are part of normal adolescent development. But we carry them into our adult experience. And  that model of love can’t sustain long-term connection and vitality.

Becoming “Indifferent”

Through my research and clinical work I’ve been discovering how and why some people defy the norm and generate new energy and vitality within their long-term relationships. I’m convinced that there’s a way out of the Functional Relationship. There’s even a way to avoid it altogether.  I call it the art of Creative Indifference. Read more…

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Today’s Psychologically Healthy Adult — Neither Adult Nor Healthy

April 20th, 2010

Becoming Sane….Part III

In previous posts on the theme of “becoming sane in a turbulent, interconnected, unpredictable world,” I described why conventional emotional resiliency doesn’t work in the 21st Century; and what that means for building a psychologically healthy life in today’s world.

In this post I’ll explain why many of the conflicts men and women deal with today stem from this contradiction:  The criteria for adult psychological health accepted by the mental health professions and the general public doesn’t really describe an adult. Nor, for that matter, does it describe psychological health.

A contradiction, to be sure, so let me explain: As we entered the world of the 21st Century our definition of psychological health was largely defined by the absence of psychiatric symptoms. The problem is, that’s like defining a happy person as someone who’s not depressed.  Moreover, sometimes what appears to be a psychiatric symptom reflects movement towards greater health and growth in a person’s life situation.

But more significantly, our conventional view of psychological health is, in effect, a well-adapted, well-functioning child in relation to parents or parent figures.  Or, a sibling who interacts appropriately in a social context with other siblings. Either way, it describes a person functioning within and adapted to a world shaped and run by “parents,” psychologically speaking.

That is, we pretty much equate healthy psychological functioning with effective management or resolution of child- or sibling-based conflicts. For example, resolving and managing such child-based conflicts as impulse control; narcissistic or grandiose attitudes; and traumas around attachment, from indifference, abandonment, abuse, or parenting that otherwise damages your adult capacity for intimacy or trusting relationships.

Healthy resolution of sibling-type conflicts includes learning effective ways to compete with other “siblings” at work or in intimate relationships; managing your fears of success or disapproval; containing passive-aggressive, manipulative or other self-undermining tendencies; and finding ways to perform effectively, especially in the workplace, towards people whose approval, acceptance and reward you need or crave.

It’s no surprise, then, that many people feel and behave like children in a grown-up world. Examples permeate popular culture.  A good one is the popular TV show, “The Office.” It often portrays the eruption of these 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.  They 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 that you learn to become aware of and manage effectively whatever emotional damage you bring from your early experiences into adulthood. We all have some.  That’s a good starting point for adult psychological health, but 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.  Especially not within today’s interconnected, non-linear world.

So – without a picture of what a healthy adult would feel, think and do in the current environment, you’re left with questions but few answers. For example:

  • How can 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 is acquired by another, or goes 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 can 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 alive with fresh energy – 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 — while enjoying life at the same time?

We now live within a world where the only constant is change, and where a new requirement is being able to compete and collaborate with everyone from everywhere about almost everything.

Doing that with self-awareness and knowledge of how to grow and develop all facets of your being – that’s the new path to adult psychological health.  But you need to know where to find the path.

Learning From The Business World?

Actually, I think we can learn a lot about what’s needed for psychological health from changes occurring in the business world. Read more…

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Becoming Sane….Part II

April 13th, 2010
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“What Happened To My Mental Health?”

In Part I of “Becoming Sane in a Turbulent, Interconnected, Unpredictable World,” I wrote about why you need a new kind of emotional resiliency for success and well-being in today’s world.  Here, I’ll extend those thoughts about resiliency to psychological health in general.  Just as we need to redefine resiliency, I think we need to reformulate what a psychologically healthy adult looks like in this transformed world.  Here are my ideas about that:

Throughout most of the last century, adult psychological health has been largely equated with good management and coping skills: Managing stress within your work and personal life; and effective coping with or resolution of whatever emotional conflicts you brought with you into adulthood – and we all bring along some.

So, in your work that might include being clear about your career goals, and working your way up a fairly predictable set of steps to achieve power, recognition and financial success – all the things that we’ve equated with adult maturity and mental health.

At home, it would mean forming a long-term relationship that withstands the power struggles and other differences that often lead to affairs or even divorce.  You would assume that the healthy adult doest 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 over the last few years have turned all those criteria of health upside down.  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 world we now live in.

Massive, interconnected forces within this globalized, unpredictable world add a host of new emotional and behavioral challenges to living a psychologically healthy, well-functioning and fulfilling life.

I deal with the fallout almost daily: People 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, and 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 had 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 about what his own purpose in life is.

All of these people were on the kinds of life paths they expected would bring them predictable rewards. But counting on that linear upward climb is now hazardous to your mental health.

In fact, following that old path can make you more vulnerable to Read more…

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The Psychology Of Public Policy

April 9th, 2010
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The other day Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stirred up some interesting reactions.  He said in a speech that Americans are faced with having to accept higher taxes or readjustments in programs like Medicare and Social Security, in order to avoid ever-increasing budget deficits that will be catastrophic.

Now I’m not an economist (see former Undersecretary of Commerce Ev Ehrlich’s blog for such matters).  But I started thinking about Bernanke’s comments — and the reactions from some Republicans and assorted “anti-tax patriots” who came out with guns blazing (metaphorically….so far) — from a psychological perspective.  I find some psychological attitudes and ideology about the role of individuals in society driving the reactions to what Bernanke raised.  They’re visible as well in the angry, hostile response to the health care legislation and, more broadly, the fear and loathing of “government takeover.”

Here’s what Bernanke said:

“These choices are difficult, and it always seems easier to put them off — until the day they cannot be put off anymore. But unless we as a nation demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, in the longer run we will have neither financial stability nor healthy economic growth.”  And, “To avoid large and ultimately unsustainable budget deficits, the nation will ultimately have to choose among higher taxes, modifications to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, less spending on everything else from education to defense, or some combination of the above.”

In The Washington Post story reporting Bernanke’s speech, writers Neil Irwin and Lori Montgomery point out that:

“…the economic downturn — with tumbling tax revenue, aggressive stimulus spending and rising safety-net payments such as unemployment insurance — has driven already large budget deficits to their highest level relative to the economy since the end of World War II. This has fueled public concern over how long the United States can sustain its fiscal policies.

The upshot of what we’re facing appears to be this: Our current way of life is unsustainable.  So what’s a possible remedy, according to Bernanke and others?  Raising taxes, not lowering them.  Cuts in Medicare benefits.  Raising the retirement age.  And bringing rising health care costs down.  To  do any or all of that requires a different mentality about our responsibility and obligations to others in our society.  And it’s not pleasant.  That’s the psychology part.

That is, we’re highly attached to the ideology that we are and should be separate, isolated individuals; that each of us should look out for one’s own self-interest.  And we define that largely by material acquisition and money.  Hence, opposition to “redistribution” of wealth, even though that’s exactly what we do via taxes that support all the services that we expect society to give us.  We also define our self-interest as psychologically healthy, mature, even; the hallmark of a succesful life.  Those that don’t do as well are not my problem.

Except now they are:  We’ve been hit with the reality that our world is so interconnected that someone else’s “problem” is also our own.  To consider subordinating some of our personal wants and goals for the larger common good feels foreign and frightening.  Yet that’s exactly what we’re faced with doing. It begins with shifting our mental perspectives towards recognizing that we’re all in the same boat — not just we Americans, but all of us in this global community.  And it means stimulating the emotional counterpart of that perspective — the hard-wired capacity for empathy.  And then, making the sacrifices that result from embracing the new realities.  The economic collapse has made the need for those shifts very apparent.  We’re faced with learning to sacrifice in ways that we’re not used to doing, in order to thrive as individuals and a society in the world as it now exists.

But such shifts meet with strong, ingrained resistance and denial.  They’re fueled  by unrealistic, almost delusional notions that pursuing self-interest at all costs will lead to success and well-being. So, for example, Republicans pounced on the suggestion of increasing taxes.  They also went after remarks by Paul A. Volcker earlier this week, who spoke very directly in favor of higher taxes.  He said that the U.S. might have to consider a European-style sales tax, known as a value-added tax, to close the budget gap.  He said “If at the end of the day we need to raise taxes, we should raise taxes.”

That’s a pretty direct, unvarnished statement of reality.  But Republicans accused Obama of plotting a big tax hike, for nefarious purposes.  ”To make up for the largest levels of spending and deficits in modern history, the Administration is laying the foundation for a large, misguided new tax, a first-time American VAT.” Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a statement.

Onward goes the struggle between facing reality and dealing with it, or not facing it….and still having to deal with it

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Becoming Sane In A Turbulent, Interconnected, Unpredictable World — Part 1

April 6th, 2010
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Why Emotional Resiliency Doesn’t Work In The 21st Century

It’s becoming clear that our understanding of emotional resilience – what it is and how to achieve it — (and, more broadly, psychological health)  doesn’t mesh very well with today’s realities. Conventional descriptions of resilience and pathways to mental health don’t enable you to handle the challenges and stresses we face in the 21st Century.

Let me explain. Resilience is generally defined as the ability to cope successfully with misfortune or traumatic events. Being able to bounce back from adversity and keep on going. What helps you do that includes, for example, reviewing your strengths, focusing on positive thoughts and feelings, learning stress management, looking down the road to what you can manage better. And, by getting psychotherapy and medication when you’re unable to bounce back very well on your own.

Prior to the 21st Century, that view of resiliency and how to build it was more relevant than today. The adversity and disruptions you were likely to experience were more stable, in a sense. The world was more predictable, more linear, with respect to the kinds of stresses and disruptions that would occur – as emotionally troubling as they might be.

Most of our thinking about emotional resilience and healthy functioning, then, fits a world in which unanticipated negative events are fairly predictable. They follow a fairly understandable course, following which you can reasonably anticipate a return to some form of previous stability. In that world, wars eventually ended. The economy went through recessions, then recovered. You might suffer a career or relationship setback but could assume that there was a path to recovery.

That notion of resilience and the ways to build it remain an important foundation for mental health. But they don’t help so much when you’re faced with the challenges of today’s environment. That’s because the very notion of resilience and the strategies for bouncing back are reactive. They focus on responding to something that happens to you, rather than on what you need to be doing proactively, as part of your way of life.

Starting with 9-11, and especially since the economic meltdown that began in the fall of 2008, we’ve been living in a world that’s rapidly transforming beneath our feet. Today’s world is an interconnected, interdependent, diverse, unpredictable and unstable global community. And that’s created new psychological challenges for everyone, challenges that require a highly proactive mentality.

Without it, you might feel like the woman who consulted me recently. Even before she sat down she said,  ”I don’t know whether to reach for the Prozac….or Prilosec!”

Her grim humor masked her “recession depression” and other emotional battering. She didn’t know what would help. I’ve witnessed that a great deal in the last few years: Career and financial worries or losses; the ripple effect of those upon family life; anxieties about what sort of future one’s children are headed into, especially with climate change and terrorist threats; and the increasingly polarized views about our government’s role in people’s lives. Research and clinical observation show that all of the above are taking a psychological toll on relationships, families, career expectations, and on people’s entire sense of what they’re living and working for — their life purpose.

Unfortunately, those of us in the mental health professions haven’t been much help with these issues. Most of us continue to look through the rear-view mirror at a model of resiliency and health defined by coping with and managing conflicts in relationships and the workplace; conflicts that you can bounce back from and reestablish some kind of stability…all while continuing to pursue self-interest, such as getting your needs met, your personal goals achieved, your “happiness” acquired.

But today’s world of ongoing disruptions, continuous uncertainties and insecurity has become the new normal. Seeking to bounce back to stability and focusing on self-interest, which we’ve learned to think is the pathway to success, health and well-being, isn’t the right ticket.

In short, there’s no state of equilibrium you can bounce back to. In this highly diverse, interdependent, interconnected world.  Trying to do so is a fast ticket to dysfunction and derailment. You can’t reestablish equilibrium within a constantly shifting world. But engaging these new realities in positive ways will support your success and well-being.

Research shows that you can proactively build specific emotions, thoughts and actions that are effective for adapting to life in the non-equilibrium world we now live within. That’s encouraging, because I think we’re evolving towards a new definition of psychological health via rethinking resilience.

The criteria of a new, proactive resiliency – maybe call it “prosilience – may sound contradictory because they include letting go of self-interest in your relationships and work. The new view of resilience emphasizes being flexible, open and nimble; being able to shift and redeploy your personal resources – emotional, creative, intellectual – towards positive engagement with others.

Resiliency grows from putting your energies, your values, emotional attitudes and actions in the service of the common good – something larger than just yourself. That’s what supports both success in your outside life and internal well-being. And in today’s rapidly transforming world, you need both.

In the future look for new posts about perspectives, research and actions that relate to “becoming sane in a turbulent, interconnected, turbulent world.”  Through them I hope to contribute to a revised and needed reformulation of what psychological health and resiliency are in today’s world — in all realms of life:  intimate relationships, career challenges, engagement with diverse people, and in our responsibilities as  global citizens.

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Welcome To The New “Real America”

April 2nd, 2010
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In two recent New York Times columns, both Frank Rich and Charles M. Blow dug beneath the current surge of anger and right-wing extremism and came up with some penetrating insights about the sources of the outrage; insights that are also the tip of an iceberg:  Both of their analyses reflect a broad, sweeping evolution within the mentality of men and women that’s been taking place beneath our feet for the last several years.  I’ll describe some of those broader changes below, but first let’s look at what Rich and Blow describe.

Rich points out that the “tsunami of anger” today is illogical, in the sense that the health care legislation is less provocative than either the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Medicare.  He also reminds us that the new anger and extremism predated the health care debate:

The first signs were the shrieks of “traitor” and “off with his head” at Palin rallies as Obama’s election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since — from Gov. Rick Perry’s kowtowing to secessionists at a Tea Party rally in Texas to the gratuitous brandishing of assault weapons at Obama health care rallies last summer to “You lie!” piercing the president’s address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.

He’s pointing out that major changes are occurring in the demographics of our country.  These changes – and others, concerning what people look for in relationships and in their careers —  are beginning to have major impact on us psychologically, including our psychological health.  For some, they generate tremendous fear that can give rise to hatred and aggression; a desire to “take back our country.”

Rich points out that:

Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.

Then, in a similar analysis, Charles M. Blow writes in his column:

It’s an extension of a now-familiar theme: some version of “take our country back.” The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn’t existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them.

Even the optics must be irritating. A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House. The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.

Blow cites a recent Quinnipiac University poll that found Tea Party members to be just as anachronistic to the direction of the country’s demographics as the Republican Party. For instance, they were disproportionately white, evangelical Christian and “less educated … than the average Joe and Jane Six-Pack.”  Blow points out that this is at the very time

when the country is becoming more diverse (some demographers believe that 2010 could be the first year that most children born in the country will be nonwhite), less doctrinally dogmatic, and college enrollment is through the roof. The Tea Party, my friends, is not the future.

Well said.  Mounting demographic and psychological research are confirming and extending what Rich and Blow describe.  In fact, several strands of change have been underway and coalescing into a changing psychology of people – their emotional attitudes, mental perspectives, values regarding work and relationships, and behavior towards people in need or who suffer loss.  These are shifts within a wide range of thought, feelings and actions.  Here are some of them: Read more…

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