There’s an old saying that if you want to see into your future, just look into a mirror. That is, how you live your life each day — through your choices, your values and behavior — shapes and determines who you will be in the future.
Many people today don’t like what they see when they look into that mirror. Especially when so much feels out of control: Economic decline with no end in sight; social and political changes that can feel frightening, even threatening; career uncertainty; relationships unraveling under stress; climate disasters, both man-made and natural. All of these events impact your mental health and overall well being, as research and survey data show: Emotional, physical and social symptoms are rising, such depression and anxiety, obesity, demagoguery from media personalities like Glen Beck, emotional disturbance in the workplace…the list goes on.
All of that can make you feel frozen in today’s world. How can you find a psychologically healthy path into the future, in the midst of such confusion and turmoil? And, within a cultural and political environment that feeds self-serving, shortsighted behavior?
I’ve been addressing the impact of living in our new world upon people’s emotional health on my posts for this blog, Progressive Impact. In this post, I suggest three ways to “reboot” you life in positive ways, within today’s unpredictable, interdependent and often scary world.
Common lore is that it’s harmful to wake up a person who’s sleepwalking, but that’s not true. And when you’re sleepwalking in your life, it’s especially crucial to wake up to some important truths. They include what really drives your life, your values, your beliefs and your conflicts. That is, what lies behind the denials, rationalizations, and social fictions you’ve created or bought into along the way. Keep in mind that we all have hidden drivers; it’s part of growing up as a human.
So, it’s important to wake up. That means facing and working at rectifying what’s unexamined or unresolved in your life that’s caused difficulties for you. These are mostly unconscious and usually products of old childhood and family-based conflicts. People tend to repeat and reenact them through adulthood. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead – in fact, it’s not even past.”
In addition to old traumas are the consequences of having taken a wrong path in life; a decision that you may now regret, perhaps one that was based on fear. That can also keep you locked in place and less flexible today.
No question, waking up to painful truths can feel frightening or humiliating. But it’s the road to “rebooting” your life. It might mean confronting feelings of deep self-loathing. Or recognizing shame about expressing your needs, perhaps because your parents affirmed only the desires they approved of. It might mean facing up to a character trait you’ve been blind to, like arrogance or contempt. Therapy can help with these issues, when they are particularly troublesome. But you can also practice honest self-examination on your own.
A marketing executive I worked with awakened to the fact that she was chronically drawn to relationships in which she felt invalidated and unaffirmed – both with lovers and bosses – just as she felt as a child, when she was treated indifferently by her mother and rejected by her father. Awakening like that can activate feelings of rage, loss, and disappointment. They might come from realizing what was done to you, and from what you did to yourself. But if you don’t awaken, you could seal your fate. Like this woman had been doing, you might keep reenacting old themes over and over, telling yourself new versions of the same old lies (“This time, with him/her, it’s going to be different!”).
Another part of waking up is learning about your inborn temperament and how that impacts your sensitivities and needs. For example, how much or how little social interaction you enjoy; your reactions to light and sound. Learning how to penetrate through the cultural and gender attitudes you acquired as you grew into adulthood is also important. For example, our culture has taught that “success” in relationships and work is equivalent to possession and control – getting it or submitting to it. This has created all sorts of emotional problems, individually and socially, especially when “failure” results. Take a look at how devastated people can feel when they suffer a career setback. And that experience has become even more intensified since the economic downturn began in the fall of 2008.
Lose Your Mind
Henry Miller once wrote, “Don’t try to change the world….change worlds!” He was referring to the liberating experience of looking at your life situation from a very different perspective than your usual one. I’ve described this shift in previous posts as a way to create new solutions to relationship conflicts. But more broadly, “losing your mind” can be helpful for creating new ways of seeing and thinking about your life in many ways, especially when you feel frozen or stagnant.
For example, envision what it would look like to behave differently in a situation that’s confusing or causing conflict. Picture yourself in a movie, where you’re creating different scenarios, alternative “takes” for the same scenes. Or, imagine yourself as the character in a novel….and you’re writing the story as it proceeds. Just picturing in your mind alternative ways of seeing yourself can free up the new energy you need for making changes.
One example: Jane, a media executive, sought help for dealing with a new, faltering relationship. Her emotional mindset was such that she viewed herself “the problem” because of what she assumed was her “chronic insecurity.” With help to visualize a different “take” of her story, she looked at her insecurity not as a deformity but as her response to her partner when he withdrew from conflict. That is, her insecurity was the product of something she brought to her relationships, as well as the kind of man she was drawn to, to begin with. She also saw parallels in chronic conflicts with some co-workers on her team. Waking up to the roots of her own issues, combined with shifting her view of those chronic situations, opened up new possibilities for growth and change in her relationships.
Creating a different mindset can also help when you have a setback or loss in your career. For example, a senior executive who had enjoyed a stellar career was suddenly faced with “failure,” when he was let go in the current economic downturn. He felt depressed and rudderless. One thing that helped him was to create a different picture of what had make him successful in the past; different from the career roles that he had defined himself by, previously. Using the analogy of the children’s toy, Lego Blocks, he visualized himself as a set of strengths and capacities. Those were the keys to his previous career success. They could be reconfigured and redeployed in different ways – just as you can use Lego Blocks to make different objects – and therefore create success in other kinds of roles than his previous one.
To use a very non-psychological term, “wisdom” begins to accrue as you practice “Waking Up” and “Losing Your Mind.” That’s because the more you see, the more you can understand and create more effective actions in response to what you understand. Wisdom reflects a broader set of perspectives, sort of like the expanded vision you have, looking from the top of a tall building vs. when you’re standing on the street. That helps you with the next practice for rebooting your life – making deliberate shifts in your behavior.
Push The Envelope
Becoming more self-aware and shifting your mindset about your life are the foundation for positive change. But then you have to apply them to how you behave in daily life.
One way to trigger positive change is to put yourself in new environments, situations or relationships that require you to stretch; to create new behavior consistent with how you want to change or grow. For example, a man who had become aware of arrogant and superior attitudes that he’d been demonstrating towards others, wanted to change. He committed to growing his capacity for empathy towards others, and knew it would take some work. One avenue for building greater empathy was undertaking volunteer work that, in effect, “required” him to practice compassion and giving. That behavior was like strengthening a muscle. The more he “exercised” it, the more it grew.
Keep in mind that “rebooting” your life comes at a price: All of your actions from the past remain a part of you. But that doesn’t have to be a negative. In fact, they can inform you about what you need to rectify or build on in order to redirect your life today. When you awaken, shift your mindset, and undertake new actions, you’re also incorporating all the consequences of your past. That’s part of creating greater wisdom in the present.
For example, some people were damaged by ignorant, abusive, or narcissistic parents. Some voluntarily hurt themselves, as well, by foolish actions or decisions. Positive change in your life is fueled by integrating and accepting responsibility for all of that. Forgiveness and compassion towards yourself and others is key. Without it, you don’t grow. You’ll remain like a computer program that’s become frozen.
Learning from the consequences of your past helps you restart and grow, whether in your relationships or any other part of your life. In fact, every moment is a new opportunity to “reboot.” And as you do that you create the foundation for a “remix” – which I’ll describe in Part 2.