“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 dysfunction and disturbance in the days ahead. That’s a prime reason for building the new pro-active resiliency that I wrote about. It provides a necessary foundation for what you need going forward.
Life In A Changing World
To better understand the mental health impact of what’s been happening in people’s lives, let’s look at it 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 psychologically healthy lives suddenly leave them at a loss. They’re faced with new psychological challenges posed by the globalized, environmentally fragile, diverse and unpredictable new environment. And they don’t know how to respond.
We’ve all become starkly aware that unforeseen circumstances can create widespread turmoil in all sorts of ways. For example, the actions of some mortgage lenders in the U.S. triggered worldwide economic turmoil and upheaval that began in the fall of 2008 and has affected 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. 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, as well: People become almost instantly aware of human rights violations or natural disasters wherever they occur. Not to mention personally embarrassing moments that become instantly available thanks to Google and YouTube. And, if you wish, your moment-to-moment activities are available around 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, 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 to impact your career and relationships in major ways; and, therefore, your mental health.
The latter impact is visible in the workplace, in which the management and business culture is increasingly unpredictable. The new conditions require you to be more 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. 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 shifts 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 new conflicts brought about by our interconnected world.
In subsequent posts on this theme of “Becoming Sane…” I’ll explain why our 20th Century understanding of psychological health is unable to support positive human development in our 21st Century world. And, in contrast, what you can do to build psychological health in this new era.