Tag Archives: resiliency

Depressed and Married? Here’s Why

 

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This is a no-brainer, but it’s always good to see research that confirms what seems obvious — or your personal experience.

This study found that stress within your marriage can make you more vulnerable to depression. It found that people who experience chronic stress within their marriages have diminished enjoyment of positive experiences, as well as higher incidence of depressive symptoms.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and published in the journal Psychophysiology. In a summary by the University of Wisconsin News, Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW’s Waisman Center states that “This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it’s one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated. This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression.” He adds that the findings are important because “…they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges.”

By understanding the mechanisms that make individuals more prone to depression and other emotional disturbances, Davidson is hoping to find tools — such as meditation — to stop it from happening in the first place. “How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?” he asks. “What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?”

As reported by the UW’s News, the researchers thought chronic marital stress could Continue reading

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The Harmful Effects Of Loneliness Are Rooted In Our Culture

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A recent psychotherapy patient, Ms. A., tells me that she’s felt lonely throughout her life. Her intimate relationships have been brief; her friends, few. In recent years she’s been suffering from one physical ailment after another. Another patient, Mr. B, has an active social life with friends and business associates, a long-term marriage and an extended family. Despite this socially full life, he complains of feeling lonely “right in the midst of everyone around me.” He, too, suffers from frequent illness.

Some new research finds that loneliness can harm your immune system and set the stage for a range of illness. Of course, our mind/body/spirit is all one. Each “part” affects each other “part,” so that’s no surprise. But there’s a lot more to the story. People like Ms. A and Mr. B appear different, yet are alike in other ways. That is, some people’s loneliness reflects an absence of positive relationships. That, in turn, may be rooted in long-term emotional issues that interfere with forming and maintaining relationships. Yet others have a full social life but feel lonely anyway. These apparently different situations raise a question: What promotes or creates the conditions for loneliness in today’s society? And, what would help alleviate the painful isolation and disconnection that some feel, regardless of the extent of their social connections? Continue reading

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Taking Down The Christmas Tree…With Elvis And My Kids

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 11.26.22 AMAs I walked through the lobby of my office building the other day following some time off during the holidays, I noticed that the Christmas tree, the assorted little snowmen, the lights and other decorations were still up. I had a flashback to the time, many years ago, when my young children and I would gather together to put up — and then take down — the Christmas tree. It had become our little tradition. Until, that is, when it was no longer; when I had to dismantle it myself but just let it sit there, untouched. For along time.

Here’s what happened: From my children’s earliest years, on through my divorce and years as a single parent, we would gather together for a small party to decorate the tree. We’d join again to take it down on New Year’s Day, sort of like bookends to the holiday season; a transition into the new calendar year. We accompanied both events with playing songs from my old Elvis’ Christmas album, some treats for my kids and a big glass of wine for me. But over the years, my children grew and their interest faded. And it was hard for me to recognize and accept that.

I may sound like a sentimental, aging midlife father, but I still smile to myself recalling how enjoyable our tradition was for us for many years. It went like this: A couple of weeks before Christmas, after we set the tree up in its stand, we would retrieve the large shipping carton that contained the ornaments and lights from the previous year. But before doing anything, we would bring out some homemade cookies for the children and some good Bordeaux for me. And then, to initiate our decorating party, I would begin playing Elvis’ old Christmas album — an original copy, which I had bought as a teenager.

Though now in delicate condition, the old LP’s sound remained clear and vibrant on the stereo. My kids liked Elvis’ version of classic songs, like “Here Comes Santa Claus,” but also enjoyed his more adult rock numbers, like “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me” or “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” my own favorites.

As Elvis sang, we began Continue reading

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Resilience and Life Satisfaction

Some new research from Spain indicates that resiliency is associated with greater life satisfaction. I think this validates what can and should occur, and is reflective of positive mental health. However, I think the study is limited in two ways. First, it was done with young adult students, which does not take into account how the experiences of adult years and adult life impact the sense of resiliency and emotional control that one might demonstrate when it’s less tested. But beyond that, I think the study is limited by a view of resiliency that’s essentially reactive – focused on being able to “bounce back” to a previous state of equilibrium. In my view, that’s not as relevant to today’s turbulent world. The current environment requires much more pro-active, flexible behavior in the face of ongoing change; not just recovery from setbacks or trauma. That is, resiliency and life satisfaction will connect to the extent that the person is able to anticipate and deal with a “non-equilibrium” world. Here is the report of the Spanish study, Its summary states:

When confronted with adverse situations such as the loss of a loved one, some people never fully recover from the pain. Others, the majority, pull through and experiment how the intensity of negative emotions (e.g. anxiety, depression) grows dimmer with time until they adapt to the new situation. A third group is made up of individuals whose adversities have made them grow personally and whose life takes on new meaning, making them feel stronger than before.

Researchers at the Basic Psychology Unit at Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona analysed the responses of 254 students from the Faculty of Psychology in different questionnaires. The purpose was to evaluate their level of satisfaction with life and find connections between their resilience and their capacity of emotional recovery, one of the components of emotional intelligence which consists in the ability to control one’s emotions and those of others.

Research data shows that students who are more resilient, 20% of those surveyed, are more satisfied with their lives and are also those who believe they have control over their emotions and their state of mind. Resilience therefore has a positive prediction effect on the level of satisfaction with one’s life.

Some of the characteristics of being resilient can be worked on and improved, such as self-esteem and being able to regulate one’s emotions. Learning these techniques can offer people the resources needed to help them adapt and improve their quality of life”, explains Dr Joaquin T Limonero, professor of the UAB Research Group on Stress and Health at UAB and coordinator of the research.

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Why Today’s Workplace Creates Emotional Conflicts

One of the most poorly understoodthough frequently experiencedrealities of work andcareertoday is that success often takes an enormous toll on people’s emotions and overall lives. It sounds ironic, I know, but it’s true. And to the extent it’s noticed at all, the downside of success is usually assumed to be understandablestressor work-life balance problems of modern lives.

But that misses the larger problem: Career success often generates a range of emotional conflicts that affect the person, job performance and ultimately the company’s success. Conflicts range from questioning the value and worth of the toll you pay along the path to success to more troubling problems. For example, feeling constrained by long hours, work that often lacks meaning, vigilance about political conflicts that can suck you in, and frustration withmanagementpractices. More serious emotional problems include anxiety, depression and chronic physical ailments. All of the above can be triggered by successful career advancement.

Though the problem is underrecognized, it’s widespread. Periodically anew surveyappears, documenting depression in the workplace and dissatisfaction with leadership. Other research confirms that demoralization rises when work isn’t very engaging; or when opportunities for continued growth and expanding competencies are too limited or blocked. It’s time we recognize the negative psychological impact that the management culture and the “requirements” for success can have on people and the organizations they work for. They exist at great cost to both.

When I investigated and wrote about career-related conflicts this a few decades ago I found Continue reading

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Why Our Political Culture Looks Insane

The ugly spectacle of political gridlock reflects a political culture best described as insane. It’s increasingly disconnected from realities of our current world. We’re living in the midst of massive, worldwide transformation towards a highly intertwined and increasingly transparent world. The impact of this transformation is visible in economic shifts, new political movements, changing social norms and personal values, business practices and in individual behavior.

The products of this transformation call for policies and actions that respond to them in pragmatic, positive ways. But here in the U.S., our political culture of both left and right operates as though these new realities either don’t exist or don’t matter; as though the old order still prevails.

Examples of the political insanity include:

  • From the left, President Obama is attacked for not achieving and pushing for a more progressive agenda, despite a range of accomplishments that he’s achieved. But the greater insanity is that he’s operating with the new “requirement” instituted by Republicans: That every piece of legislation must now be able to overcome a filibuster threat, rather than be hammered out through compromise and then subjected to a majority vote.
  • On the right, the Republican/Tea Party vilifies Obama’s “socialist,” “anti-American” or — in Newt Gingrich’s description — “Kenyan, anti-colonialist” agenda, despite an ironic reality to the contrary: President Obama’s policies and behavior are much closer to those of a moderate Republican of yore; the kind that doesn’t exist anymore.
  • Then there’s the ongoing clown show — Republican presidential hopefuls who argue for returning to policies that — as data show — have created the economic mess we’re now in. Moreover, they try to outdo each other to embrace anti-science, anti-knowledge positions, whether about climate change or evolution; and they vocally embrace anti-human rights positions when those rights concern gays and lesbians.

Contrast the above positions and policy objectives with some of the transformations whose impact is increasingly visible in everyone’s lives. On the surface, they appear disparate; unrelated. But collectively, you can see a theme: A rising change of mentality. That is, a mixture of values, world outlook, emotional attitudes, and conduct. It’s simultaneously a response to and a driver of the rise of interconnection and interdependency. And it has cascading political, economic and social implications.

Here are some of the seemingly unrelated shifts that reflect the reality of today’s world: Continue reading

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Overcome the Maladies of Midlife By Transforming What “Loss” and “Change” Mean

Despite the volumes of books and magazine articles advising midlife baby boomers how to prolong or renew their health, happiness and vitality, I continue to hear many of them tell me about feelings of stagnation and loss. Or worse, a sense of being on “a long slide home,” as one 50-something put it.

For example:

  • You happened to catch an old episode of“Sesame Street”or“Mister Rogers”on TV, and you felt engulfed by a wave of nostalgia and loss over your children, who are now grown and building their own lives without you.
  • You worry about whether your career has peaked, especially when you’re reminded every day of the hordes of younger people coming up right behind you — or who’ve now moved ahead of you.
  • You’re divorced and dealing with new challenges as a single person.
  • Or, you’re married/with a partner, but feelings of passion and intimacy have faded like autumn leaves.
  • You’re stressed about your financial future in your later years, given our economic uncertainty.

I think there’s a core reason why such feelings and experiences aren’t helped all that much by the midlife guides and programs out there: We’ve learned to experience midlife through Continue reading

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Does Imagining a Goal Make You Less Likely to Achieve It?

A common theme amongself-helpteachings and new agespiritualideas, such asThe Secret,is that you have the power within you to make your “dreams” come true by focusing your mental energy, your “intent” on them. Then, they will come to you. But somenew researchclaims that doing so can actually make youlesslikely to achieve what you wish for.

The research says that fantasizing about achievinggoalsmakes you less likely to achieve them because it drains the energy you need to pursue them. I think the research is as flawed and distorted asThe Secretand similar teachings, but for very different reasons. Let’s take a look.

This study, from New York University’s Motivation Lab, found that “positivefantasies” predict poor achievement because they don’t generate the energy to pursue the desired future. That is, if you create idealized images of future outcomes, your fantasized ambitions are less likely to become reality. That’s because positive fantasies are de-energizing.

The research contains so many confused ideas and faulty assumptions that it’s hard to know where to begin. But it does, indirectly, open a door to understanding some important elements for turning your goals into reality. Continue reading

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Doing A “Relationship Inventory” Helps Build Sustainable Romantic and Sexual Intimacy

The overall theme of my blog posts is about revising what we think a psychologically healthy life is, in todays 21st Century interconnected culture. That is, what psychological health and resiliency look like in careers and organizations, and in intimate relationships. Some of my earlier posts have described features of healthy relationships in this new era, based on new thinking and research studies. And, that our culture undermines the emotional attitudes and behavior that support connected, energized intimate relationships ones that dont go south after that early rush of excitement and passion fades.

In this and future posts Ill describe more about what supports a positive relationship, emotionally, sexually and spiritually. What wont are the fantasized portrayals and simplistic formulas promoted by the advice and technique books and magazine articles. Most of them dont work anyway, and can do more harm than good because they can make couples feel inadequate if, for example, they cant find the right words to reflect back to their partner; or they discover that the new sexual technique or tantric exercise just doesnt arouse them.

This post is about a frequently overlooked first step towards a sustainable relationship with your current or future partner. Couples Ive worked with find it helpful because it builds the self-reflection and self-awareness you need for growing and evolving yourself in your relationship capacities. I call this first step doing a Relationship Inventory. With it, you can review, understand, and learn from your past relationships; and then face forward with greater clarity and capacity for creating and sustaining emotional and sexual intimacy in the present and future.

Begin by making a list of all your significant romantic relationships. For each, Continue reading

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Obama’s Call to “Win the Future” Requires a New Definition of “Success”

When President Obama urged Americans to “win the future” in his recent SOTU address, he called upon the innovative, communal spirit that’s enabled us to “do great things.” Ironically, that part of his message exposes a glaring contradiction: How we’ve defined achieving “success” in our lives has become outmoded and maladaptive in our 21st Century world. To meet the challenges of our “Sputnik moment,” we need to revamp our thinking about what success is, as well as what psychological orientation is necessary to achieve it.

Consider this: The old, conventional view of a successful life is mostly defined by financial and self-interested criteria — getting, consuming and possessing for oneself. As Ronald Reagan once said about pursuing the “American dream” everyone “...wants to see an America in which people can get rich.”

But as President Obama pointed out in his address, “That world has changed. And for many, the change has been painful.” The reality of today’s interconnected, highly interdependent world, greed is not good. It’s psychologically unhealthy; it undermines the values, mindset and actions people need to strengthen in order to meet the challenges we face as individuals and as a nation.

That is, our security, success and well-being now require strengthening communal values and behavior; working towards common goals, the common good. Acting on self-interest alone, especially in the pursuit of personal power, steady career advancement and money Continue reading

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What Is Psychological Health In Today’s World?

The aftermath of the Tucson shootings is likely to spawn new discussion about serious mental illness and its legal implications. Coincidentally, the mental health establishment has been debating what to include or exclude as a mental and emotional disorder, for the forthcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For example, one controversy is whether to remove narcissism as a bonafide disorder.

In contrast to discussion about mental disorders, I think we’ve neglected its flip side: What constitutes psychological health in today’s world? What does it look like? And how can you promote it in your own life, your children and in society?

These questions loom large because the most psychologically healthy people and societies will be best equipped to create and sustain well-being, security and success in the tumultuous road we’re now traveling on.

Take a look: At the start of this second decade of the 21st Century our lives and institutions are reeling, trying to cope with an interconnected, unpredictable world turned upside down by the events of the first decade: terrorism that’s come home to roost; economic meltdown at home and abroad; rapid rise of previously “underdeveloped” nations; and in our social and political spheres, the rise of hatred, bigotry and intolerance, as Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupik commented on following the Tucson shootings. This upheaval has fueled what I described in recent posts a “social psychosis” that’s locked in conflict with a societal need to serve the common good.

The problem is that we know what severe mental illness as well as “garden variety” neurotic conflicts look like in daily life. Those have become more prevalent in the current climate. But what we think of as psychological health is pretty vague. Moreover, it’s a 20th Century view that doesn’t fit in the new world environment.

That is, psychological health has been pretty much defined as successful resolution and management of childhood traumas and conflicts; coping with stress and adapting to the world around you, as an adult. The problem is, that view has assumed a relatively stable and static world. One in which you can anticipate the kinds of changes or events that might occur. And when they do, a healthy, resilient person could bounce back to the previous equilibrium that existed. But today, there’s no longer any equilibrium to return to. Psychological health requires living with disequilibrium. Continue reading

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Why Psychotherapists Fail To Help People In Today’s World

Many people who enter psychotherapy today aren’t helped at all. Some end up more troubled than when they began treatment. And ironically, some therapists are examples of the kinds of problems they’re trying to treat. In this post I explain why that is and how to become a more informed�consumer when considering psychotherapy.

The popularity of the TV show “In Treatment” is one indicator that there’s a large, market for psychotherapy, today. Despite the decline of the more orthodox psychoanalytic treatment – the kind that Daphne Merkin described in a recent�New York Times article about her years in treatment – people continue to seek competent professional help for dealing with and resolving the enormous emotional challenges and conflicts that impact so many lives in current times. Beyond healing, they want to grow their capacity for healthy relationships and successful lives.

Many skilled and competent therapists are out there. (I use term “therapist” to describe psychologists, psychiatrists and clinical social workers – professionally trained and licensed practitioners.) Moreover, research shows that psychotherapy can be very effective. Either alone, or sometimes in combination with the judicious use of�medication.

Yet so often practitioners don’t help people very much. Some struggle for years in therapy with one practitioner after another, and never seem to make any progress. Others resolve some conflicts, but then are hit with others that hadn’t been addressed.

I see three reasons for this situation. One is rooted in the�kind of people therapists tend to be today. Their personal values, social attitudes and how they relate to conventional norms and behavior contrast in several ways with those of the “pioneers” from Freud’s era. That contrast impedes effective help.

Then there are the�kinds of problems that people experience. They’ve evolved over the decades, but especially since 9-11 and the near-depression that began in the fall of 2008. But many therapists aren’t in synch with the impact of that shift. They fail to understand how�21st Century conditions impact emotional lives and conflicts. Many are clueless about how life in today’s world interweaves with the dysfunctions or family conflicts that patients bring with them into their adult lives.

The third reason is the therapists’ vision of the�goals of treatment; what a healthy outcome or resolution of conflicts should look like, and how to get there. Many remain stuck within an older model – helping patients better manage, cope with or adjust to change and�traumas; build�resilience and restore equilibrium. But that’s no longer possible: Our�new environment is one of “non-equilibrium” and unpredictability. That creates new emotional and life challenges across the board — for intimate relationships, careers and for engaging with a changing society – the “remix” that America is now becoming.

The Psychotherapist – Past and Present

The early analysts were pioneers, adventurous explores of uncharted terrain. They were trying to uncover how human�personality and�unconscious passions evolve within people to create symptoms and dysfunctions. They courageously risked their careers when they called attention to the impact of repressed�sexuality. Aside from the accuracy of early theories about the causes of emotional disturbance, the practitioners’ aim was to reduce suffering. They wanted to help people develop more love, reason and independence – albeit within the context of the norms of their era that they, themselves, accepted.

Moreover, most were well-read in literature, history and culture, more so than today’s practitioners. That gave them a broad outlook and perspective on life. For example, Freud’s writings are filled with references from Shakespeare, Goethe and other great works of literature, drama and mythology. He drew on their themes, plots and character portrayals to help illuminate and understand the motives and�moral dilemmas underlying his patients’ emotional problems.

Most contemporaries and followers of�Freud possessed a radical spirit. They wanted to uncover the truth beneath patient’s symptoms; see beneath the surface. They shared the view that successful treatment was based on a love of the truth; that is, emotional reality. And that it must preclude any kind of sham,�deception or illusion.

Of course, Freud and his contemporaries interpreted their patients’ problems in many ways that were flawed. They made assumptions about psychological health that were part of the prevailing values and norms of post-Victorian, early-20th Century society – a largely patriarchal culture. For example, most assumed that a normal, successful life derived from being well-adjusted to those norms.

Nevertheless, their spirit of truth-seeking, rooted in broad understanding of human culture, literature and history, has become lost. Today’s practitioners tend to be�technicians, looking for the right technique that will treat the patient’s symptoms. Many tend to be cautious, often disengaged and detached people in their manner and interactions with patients. They are largely ignorant of philosophical,�religious, cultural and socio-economic forces that shape people’s psychological development, especially those in non-Western societies. And yet, all of those forces in all parts of the globe profoundly impact how and why we learn to think and behave as we do. Much current world conflict reflects those differences that define what we think in “normal” or “disturbed.”

Many therapists today simply assume that adjusting to prevailing values and norms reflects psychological health. Now that’s desirable for those whose conflicts have disabled them from minimally successful functioning. But it misses the mark for those whose conflicts are linked with their successful adaptation to begin with. The therapist then fails to explore their patients’ definition of “success” – how it’s shaped their�career and life goals, their conflicts and disappointments.

Some therapists will spend inordinate time ferreting out tiny truths about the patient’s family and�childhood, without figuring out which have relevance to the person’s conflicts today, and which don’t. They may ignore the impact of trade-offs and compromises patients made as they created their sexual and intimate relationship patterns

Overall, today’s practitioners tend to�share in, rather than�critique and examine, the social norms, values and anxieties of today’s world. Too often, they uncritically accept good functioning per se, and conventional values like power-seeking, as psychologically healthy. This blinds them from recognizing that “normal” adjustment can mask repressed feelings of self-betrayal, self-criticism, and the desire to be freer, more alive. All of those longings can conflict with or oppose parental expectations or the pressures from social class membership.

Emotional Conflicts In Today’s World

People’s problems have evolved. Up through World War II and into the 1950s-early 60s symptoms that were more typical of Freud’s time — hysteria or specific phobias, for example – diminished. People wanted help for fitting in with the apparent paths to success and�happiness and for dealing with conflicts that interfered with or limited it. Therapy often addressed things like guilt, inhibition, the need for approval, and dealing with the conflicts generated by defined, rigid roles for men and women. Desires or longings that deviated too much from the prevailing norms were troublesome and created conflicts, often unconscious.

The popular TV show “Mad Men” is a good portrayal of conflicts of that era, especially issues of�identity, longing for an authentic self and�gender�roles. At the same time, the men enjoyed the surface appearance of power and control. And women chafed against the limits imposed by gender roles, as the women’s movement began to arise.

The period of social upheaval of the late 60s and 70s created more openly conscious conflict and struggle for many people. The theme, here, was seeking more freedom from oppressive relationships and social constraints. Some therapists were able to address these issues in helpful ways. But others were bound by their own uncritical embrace of the very norms their patients wanted help to free themselves from.

Partly because of that disconnect, many�psychotherapy patients were attracted to the vision of personal development offered by the rising “new age” movement, although its gurus generally lacked any depth of understanding about emotional conflicts or psychological development.

Then, from the 1980s to about 2000 more men and women sought help to create more personally fulfilling, engaged relationships, and more personal meaning from their work. The�costs and limits of success became visible in patients who wanted help to create greater work-life “balance” while preserving their relationships and their upward climb in their careers. Dealing with the emotional fallout of the dot-com bubble burst added another dimension to these stresses. During this period of greater fulfillment-seeking, more people turned to�spiritual development as a companion to or substitute for traditional therapy, especially via older traditions like Buddhism and other Eastern practices.

And now, in the current era, emotional conflicts spring more from the psychological impact of our nonlinear, unpredictable, highly interconnected world. For example, financial and�career uncertainties. Changing practices in romantic/sexual relationships. Facing one’s responsibilities to fellow inhabitants of the planet, and for sustaining the planet for future generations. The psychological impact of these issues interacts with the legacy of family conflicts and their dysfunctions that people carry with them into the adult world. It’s a�new universe of potential pain and confusion that people are now struggling with.

What Helps?

Therapists need a vision of what healing and emotional health looks like, today, and how to help the patient achieve it. And therapists must engage in self-examination about their own values and attitudes. That’s one safeguard against rationalizing failure to help their patients examine these same issues within themselves. Otherwise, the therapist may collude with a patient to avoid confronting issues relevant to both of them. Then, it becomes like a Shakespearian play where the motives of the characters are visible to members of the audience, but the characters themselves remain oblivious to their�unconscious motives that propel them along.

Therapists bear a responsibility to help patients uncover the deeper truth about their life dilemmas – not just continue to detail all of its manifestations. Like the branches of a tree, all of them spring from the same trunk, the same roots. For one person, that might be a deep, unconscious desire to remain protected and secure like a baby. Or a desire to destroy one’s father or mother. It could be intense lust for power and domination. Exposing and confronting that core of truth can be liberating, like in fairy tales when the power of the�evil spirit is broken when you can call it by its name. At least you then have an opportunity to do something about it.

Being a more personally engaged therapist is also important today. People are increasingly turned off by therapists who maintain the old manner of silence and detachment. Or whose rigid focus invokes in patients the same unmet longings for nurturance and acceptance that patients may have experienced in their families to begin with.

The traditional practice is for the therapist to divulge little or nothing about him or herself. That’s been fading, especially in a Google world. More are drawn to people like the psychiatrist played by Gabriel Byrne on “In Treatment.” While that TV show has elements of a soap opera and the therapy sessions often sound like “life-management” discussions, the psychiatrist shows more openness and flexibility with his patients.

The viewer sees him as a human, himself, struggling with his own personal issues. People like that openness. It’s more consistent with psychoanalyst Steven Kuchuck’s�comment about Merkin’s article in�The New York Times. He described the greater appeal and benefit of practitioners who emphasize “…greater patient-analyst�collaboration, the analyst’s selective self-disclosure and other techniques designed to address many of the concerns and limitations Merkin has experienced…

In addition to personal qualities, therapists who are familiar with the broad impact of our post-9-11, post-economic meltdown world on people’s mental health are better positioned to help their patients. In addition to knowing that people’s emotional issues are tightly interwoven with global political, social and economic forces as I described above, it’s helpful for therapists to be tuned-in to demographic and other changes that are pulling many in our culture to move beyond motives of purely self-interest, and towards serving the�common good.

Similarly, too many practitioners tend to be sadly uniformed about the realities of life in business and career world — the political realities, the politics and conflicting agendas; the challenges of transparency, collaboration, and�innovation — all needed for success. Without that awareness it’s hard for them to�differentiate problems that people bring with them from in their�attachment issues and family relationships, from those that are reactive to confusing, demoralizing, non-linear challenges and constantly shifting goal posts in their workplace.

It’s also valuable for therapists to be current with new research relevant to dealing with today’s conflicts. Two recent examples:�One finds that people who maintain a long-range perspective of their past, present and future are better able to navigate through turmoil or setbacks and maintain greater well-being.�Another study finds that some adversity in life actually contributes to mental health and resiliency.

The upshot of all this is that you need to be an informed�consumer of therapy. To aid that, here are some useful questions to ask:

About Your Therapist:

  • Does the therapist seem to enjoy his/her work? Sound bored or depressed?
  • Does he or she convey a sense of�humor?
  • Does he or she seem to have a broad, understanding perspective about the variety of human lives?
  • What experience and knowledge does he or she have regarding the impact of work and careers on people’s lives? Be wary if the therapist indicates that such familiarity is irrelevant to treatment.

About Yourself:

  • Do you feel challenged by your therapist to look at yourself, but within a safe, respectful, non-judgmental environment?
  • Do you feel the therapist is capable of “seeing” you; your hidden truths?
  • Do you think the therapist is engaged and interested in helping you, as opposed to treating a diagnostic category?

Keep in mind that everybody has some barriers to facing and dealing with unpleasant truths about themselves. You might rationalize your own and conclude that you’re dealing with a bad therapist. Try to be open and honest with your perception. Use your�intuition, but in consort with your reason. Don’t’ hesitate to discuss these questions and your response to them with the therapist.

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Reboot and Remix Your Life for Greater Health – Part 2

After rebooting your life, it’s time for a remix.

In Part 1 of this post I wrote that the reality of life today includes much confusion, uncertainty, and confused emotions about pursuing success and wellbeing. In fact, our tumultuous, changing world spurs actions that often undermine rather than support psychological health. That’s visible in the dysfunction and unhappiness emerging from the choices, decisions and overall way of life of many people, today.

Based on current research and new thinking aboutresiliency and psychological health, I suggested three practices for “rebooting” your life in today’s environment: Self-awareness (“Wake Up”); envisioning your life circumstances with out-of-the-box perspectives (“Lose Your Mind”); and actions that support positive growth rather than stagnation (“Push The Envelope”).

In Part 2 I propose that you combine “rebooting” your life in those ways with a life “remix.” That is, create an intent to activate six important dimensions of your life, each with a new, clear purpose. The “remix” reflects the holistic reality that everything you do in each “part” of your life affects and is affected by every other “part.” A life “remix” in the dimensions I describe below helps you evolve in healthy, proactive ways. And the latter is a necessity for positive,resilient living within this fluid and uncertain world that we now inhabit.

The Six Dimensions:

Here’s what you do:

Formulate specific newgoals for each of the following six interconnected dimensions of life. Each should be modest; that is, realistic and able to be achieved within a reasonable time-frame that you specify and commit to.

Then, describe some specific actions you can begin taking right now that support each of the goals.

The six dimensions are: Continue reading

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Reversing the “Death Spiral” During So-Called Midlife

You may ask yourself: well… how did I get here?
You may say to yourself?My God!… what have I done?
Letting the days go by/into the silent water
Talking Heads

A woman in her late 30s was telling me about her work-life conflicts. She has a busy career, three children, and a husband who travels a great deal for his own job. She suddenly paused, recalling a recent, terrifying dream: She’s on one of those moving sidewalks, and can’t get off. Passing by on either side are scenes of herself, but living different lives with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her.

She wakes up, screaming.

You might think her dream sounds more typical of someone in the throes of “midlife.” In fact, I think it reveals the need for new thinking about what we’ve called “midlife.” That is, changes in our culture and in how people live require tossing out old notions of “midlife” and the “midlife crisis.” With people living longer, healthier, productive lives, what used to be a narrower “middle” period of adulthood has greatly expanded.

Instead, think of a broad period of true adulthood that starts somewhere in the 30s. From that period onward men and women face a range of truly adult challenges of living and working in today’s world. This new, longer adulthood extends for several decades — recent surveys find that about 80% think “old age” begins at around 85 — so the term “midlife” is no longer accurate.

No surprise, then, that 30-somethings are reporting symptoms associated with a “midlife crisis” – marriage boredom, careers flatlining, work-life juggling, trying to keep it all together, trying to maintain sanity…and, wondering what the point of it all is, like in that Talking Heads song.

To better explain all this and how to reverse that “death spiral,” let’s look at recent contradictory Continue reading

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Three Essential Pillars Of Health and Resiliency In Today’s World

Upgrade To Career 4.0; Practice Harnicissism;” and Become a Good Ancestor

In a previous post I wrote that a key pathway to psychological health and resiliency in today’s world is learning to “forget yourself.” This post describes ways to do that in three important realms of your life – your work, your personal relationships, and your life “footprint.”

In the earlier post I explained that “forgetting yourself” doesn’t mean neglecting your own legitimate needs or concerns. Rather, it means letting go of our human tendency to overly dwell on ourselves – our own concerns, needs, desires, slights, complaints about others, and so on. Psychological health and resiliency in today’s world grows when you can do that and put your energies in the service of something larger than yourself: problems, needs and challenges that lie beyond your own personal, narrow self-interest.

That may sound like a paradox, but it’s based on a new reality: Today’s world is changing more rapidly than you can imagine and is becoming immensely interdependent, interconnected, unpredictable and unstable. In this new environment you can’t create or sustain a positive, healthy life through the old ways of reactive resiliency, of coping and hoping to rebound.

That is, chronic unhappiness, dysfunction and overt emotional disturbance lie in store for those who remain too locked into thinking about themselves and who use old solutions to achieve success in relationships and at work. For example, trying to achieve power and domination over others, and thinking you can hold on to that. Fearing collaboration and avoiding mutuality with people who are different from yourself, or with whom you have differences. Looking for ways to cope with stress and restore equilibrium or “balance” in your life. And overall, being absorbed by your own conflicts, disappointments and the like. The latter are inevitable, and dwelling on them is a breeding ground for resentment, jealousy, and blame. That’s a dead-end. The consequences are visible in people who are unable to handle career downturn, who experience mounting relationship conflicts and who suffer from a range of psychological problems like depression, boredom, stress, anxiety and self-undermining behavior.

In contrast, positive resiliency in today’s environment is the byproduct when you aim towards common goals, purposes or missions larger than just your own narrow self-interests. That keeps you nimble, flexible, and adaptive to change and unpredictable events that are part of our new era. Then, you’re creating true balance, between your “outer” and “inner” life.

Here are three ways you can move through self-interest. Each describes a shift, or evolution from the older, reactive form of resilience to the new, proactive form:

Upgrade your career to the 4.0 version; Practice “Harnicissism;” and Become a Good Ancestor

Yeah, I know — those descriptions sound odd. Continue reading

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Building An “Inside-Out” Life

1. Why “Work-Life” Balance Is A Myth

Meet Linda and Jim, who consulted me for psychotherapy. Linda is a lawyer with a large firm; Jim heads a major trade association. They told me theyre totally committed to their marriage and to being good parents. But they also said its pretty hectic juggling all their responsibilities at work and at home They have two children of their own plus a child from her former marriage. Dealing with the logistics of daily life, to say nothing of the emotional challenges, makes it hard just to come up for air, Linda said. Sound familiar?

Or listen to Bill, a 43-year-old who initially consulted me for help with some career challenges. Before long, he acknowledged that hes worried about the other side of life. Hes raising two teenage daughters and a younger son by himself one of the rising numbers of single fathers. Hes constantly worried about things like whether a late meeting might keep him at work. He tries to have some time for himself, but its hard enough just staying in good physical health, let alone being able to have more of a life, he said. Recently, he learned he has hypertension.

Its no surprise that these people, like many I see both in my psychotherapy practice and my workplace consulting, feel pummeled by stresses in their work and home lives. Most are aware, at least dimly, that this is unhealthy that stress damages the body, mind and spirit. Ten years ago, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that 70 percent of all illness, physical and mental, is linked to stress of some kind. And that number has probably increased over the last decade. Much of this stress comes from struggling with the pressures of work and home and trying to balance both. The problem seems nearly universal, whether in two-worker, single-parent or childless households.

I think these conflicts are so common because people have learned to frame the problem incorrectly to begin with. That is, theres no way to balance work life and home life, because both exist on the same side of the scale what I call your outer life. On the other side of the scale is your personal, private life your inner life. Instead of thinking about how to balance work life and home life, try, instead, to balance your outer life and inner life.

The Other Balancing Act

Let me explain. On the outer side of the scale you have the complex logistics and daily stresses of life at both work and home the e-mails to respond to, the errands, family obligations, phone calls, to-do lists and responsibilities that fill your days. Your outer life is the realm of the external, material world. Its where you use your energies to deal with tangible, often essential things. Paying your bills, building a career, dealing with people, raising kids, doing household chores, and so on. Your outer life is on your iPhone, BlackBerry, or your e-calender.

On the other side of the scale is your internal self. Its the realm of your private thoughts and values. Your emotions, fantasies, spiritual or religious practices. Your capacity to love, your secret desires, and your deeper sense of purpose. In short, it embodies who you are, on the inside. A successful inner life is defined by how well you deal with your emotions, your degree of self-awareness , and your sense of clarity about your values and life purpose. It includes your level of mental repose: your capacity for calm, focused action and resiliency that you need in the face of your frenetic, multitasking outer life.

If the realm of the inner life sounds unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you, this only emphasizes how much you like most peple have lost touch with your inner self. You can become so depleted and stretched by dealing with your outer life that theres little time to tend to your mind, spirit or body. Then, you identify your self mostly with who you are in that outer realm. And when theres little on the inner side of the scale, the outer part weighs you down. You are unbalanced, unhappy and often sick.

When your inner life is out of balance with your outer, you become more vulnerable to stress, and thats related to a wide range of physical damage. Research shows that heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, a weakened immune system, skin disorders, asthma, migraine, musculoskeletal problems all are linked to stress.

More broadly, when your inner and outer lives become unbalanced, your daily functioning is affected in a range of ways, both subtle and overt. When operating in the outer world at work, for example, or in dealings with your spouse or partner you may struggle with unjustified feelings of insecurity and fear. You may find yourself at the mercy of anger or greed whose source you dont understand. You may be plagued with indecisiveness or revert to emotional default positions forged during childhood, such as submissiveness, rebellion or self-undermining behavior.

Even when youre successful in parts of your outer life, neglecting the inner remains hazardous to your psychological and physical health. Without a developed inner life, you lose the capacity to regulate, channel and focus your energies with awareness, self-direction and judgment. Personal relationships can suffer, your health may deteriorate and you become vulnerable to looking for new stimulation from the outer-world sources you know best maybe a new win, a new lover, drugs or alcohol.

And that pulls you even more off-balance, possibly to the point of no return. The extreme examples are Continue reading

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Obama, Empathy And The Supreme Court Nominee

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, its like Yogi Berra said: Its dj 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. Obamas nominee for the court, Sonia Sotomayor, disavowed the notion of empathy during hearings before her confirmation, saying that judges cant rely on whats 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 dont 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 asfar as the relevance of empathy to the Supreme Court issue, The Nations 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 whos insightful? It goes to show how hysterical those critics have become about empathy.

Its 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 didnt ask for a head that thinks. Continue reading

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Learning To “Forget Yourself”

“Becoming Sane…” Part IV

In Part III of becoming sane. I wrote that our prevailing model of psychological health needs revision for todays 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. Im using the phrase forget yourself to highlight an important capacity for health, survival, and happiness in todays 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 Ill 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 todays 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 its 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. Dont become like the character John Marcher in Henry James The Beast In The Jungle, who waited passively, believing that something significant was going to happenand 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 Continue reading

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The Paradox of Indifference – The Key To A Revitalized Relationship

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. Its whats happened along the way during their marriage.

Theres 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 havent 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. Hes thought about having an affair.

If these laments sound familiar to you, its likely because most men and women find that their long-term marriages (Im 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 its inevitable, but theres a unique way to liberate yourself from it. Its learning to leave your relationship in order to transform it. You do that through becoming indifferent.

First, lets 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 couldnt be here? I told you that I have a meeting I cant 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 Ive 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 womens desire, your libido desire for the person youre with remains diminished. Thats no surprise, because the latter is relationship-dependent. It remains unaffected even if youre physiologically able to become aroused.

Overall, couples in a Functional Relationship report a diminished sense of connection with each other. Sometimes its 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 womans 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, youre 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, youre 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 doesnt 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. Its easy to think its best to stop complaining about what you dont have and learn to live with lowered expectations.

If all of the above is really true, then youd 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 its the natural outcome of how you learn to engage in love relationships to begin with. As I wrote in a previous post, its 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 cant 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. Im convinced that theres a way out of the Functional Relationship. Theres even a way to avoid it altogether. I call it the art of Creative Indifference. Continue reading

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Today’s Psychologically Healthy Adult — Neither Adult Nor Healthy

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 doesnt work in the 21st Century; and what that means for building a psychologically healthy life in todays world.

In this post Ill 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 doesnt 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, thats like defining a happy person as someone whos not depressed. Moreover, sometimes what appears to be a psychiatric symptom reflects movement towards greater health and growth in a persons 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.

Its 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 hes loved; or low-self worth in a woman whos unconsciously attracted to partners who dominate or manipulate her.Of course its 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. Thats a good starting point for adult psychological health, but its 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 todays interconnected, non-linear world.

So without a picture of what a healthy adult would feel, think and do in the current environment, youre 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?
  • Whats 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 thats 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 whats needed for psychological health from changes occurring in the business world. Continue reading

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Becoming Sane….Part II

“What Happened To My Mental Health?”

In Part I of “Becoming Sane in a Turbulent, Interconnected, Unpredictable World,” Iwrote about why you need a new kind of emotional resiliency for success and well-being in todays world. Here, Ill 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 weve 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, its important to be able to manage conflicts that could derail your career or personal life. But doing that isnt 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 whove functioned pretty well in the past, but now feel as if theyre standing on tectonic plates shifting beneath them. Despite their best efforts, they struggle with mounting anxiety about the future of their own and their childrens lives, and confusion about their values and life purpose.

Theres the former Wall Street financial executive who told me hed 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. Id been coping with everything, I thought, she told me, though I dont 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 dont have enough time for my daughter or my husband, she said. What kind of life is this? . . . My husbands checked out, emotionally. And what am I teaching my daughter?

Or the lawyer, whod prided himself on eating what I kill, and Im 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 whats 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 fathers unfulfilled dreams of success have impacted his own life when suddenly his father died. Im 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 Continue reading

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

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 stressmanagement, 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”

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. Ill describe some of those broader changes below, but first lets 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 Obamas election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since from Gov. Rick Perrys 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 presidents address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.

Hes 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 havent 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:

Its 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 hasnt 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 bills 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. Its 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 countrys 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: Continue reading

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Healing Our “Empathy Deficit Disorder”

You may not realize it, but a great number of people suffer from EDD. And no, I don’t mean ADD or ED. It stands for Empathy Deficit Disorder.

I made it up, so you won’t find it listed in the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Given that normal variations of mood and temperament are increasingly redefined as “disorders,” Im hesitant to suggest adding another one. But this ones real. It’s based on my decades of experience as a business psychologist, psychotherapist and researcher, from which I’ve concluded that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition. And it has profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society.

Our increasingly polarized social and political culture over the past year has prompted me to post this — an expansion and revision of an article I wrote for The Washington Post a couple of years ago about our nationwide empathy deficit. It’s worse than ever, but ignored as a psychological disturbance by most of my colleagues in the mental health professions.

First, some explanation of what I mean by EDD: People who suffer from it are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think and believe differently from themselves. That makes it a source of personal conflicts, of communication failure in intimate relationships, and of the adversarial attitudes including hatred towards groups of people who differ in their beliefs, traditions or ways of life from one’s own.

Take the man who reported to me that his wife was complaining that Continue reading

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Behind the Obama Nobel Prize “Outrage”

I think the reasons suggested for the uproar over President Obamas Nobel Peace Prize miss a deeper issue. First, no one would dispute that Mr. Obama has not yet achieved the level of contribution to world peace that other honorees have. He, himself, acknowledged that. Critics of both right and left argue that the reward reflects an unhealthy cult of personality, and that his rock star status has overwhelmed better judgment. Some point to the Europeans apparent delight at sticking it to Dubya. And, needless to say, racism is part of the angry outbursts as well.

But theres a missing source of the outcry. Its probably less conscious; certainly less articulated. Its that the award gave a new focal point for mounting fears generated by a profound shift the world is undergoing on many fronts: The economic meltdown; global dangers and threats; the impact of climate change. Its an interlocking world, in which everyone has to figure out how to compete and collaborate with everybody else. And its a diverse world – not out there, somewhere, but right here in peoples community and workplace. Moreover, shifts in how people conduct their social, sexual and individual lives are visible all around.

In todays new era of tumultuous change, were shifting from an environment of old-style command and control, in private relationships, careers, and organizations, to collaborate and cooperate.

This wave-change, this new reality that the future has arrived, is very hard to digest for some. Im not referring, here, to the Fox crowd — the right-wing commentators and pundits. Most probably know better; and know whats going on throughout our society and the world. They may not like the changes taking place perhaps symbolized for them by a black man in the White House. But theyve chosen to exploit fears among segments of the public hardest hit by these massive changes. Theyre exploiting them for their own avarice and self-promotion. Continue reading

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Comfortably Numb at Midlife?

Unless youve been living in a cave, youre probably aware that the 78 million baby boomers have entered midlife. As a psychotherapist and business psychologist and member of this new midlife generation myself Ive worked a great deal with midlifers seeking help for emotional conflicts, career dilemmas and life transition issues.

Ive heard many expressions of midlife distress, but few as poignant as this one: A 47 yearold married mother of three told me of a dream in which she’s on one of those moving sidewalks, but can’t get off. On either side scenes pass by it’s herself, living different lives, with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her. She wakes up, screaming.

How to best understand its meaning? One problem is that much of the research and clinical understanding about midlife is contradictory. Some, like a MacArthur Foundation study, suggest that theres no such thing as a midlife crisis today; that most people sail through it smoothly. Others, like two recent studies, suggest that midlife is a time of universal depression;
sometimes severe.

For example, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found a 20 percent rise in midlife suicide among 45 to 54 yearolds from 19992004 a rise that exceeded all other age groups in the U.S.

Another study reported an increase in depression during one’s 40s to early 50s, after which happiness rises again. Researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College studied 2 million people from 80 nations and found this pattern to be consistent across gender, socioeconomic levels and among developed and developing countries alike.

Some experts think the rise of midlife suicide may reflect the decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women, the stress of modern life or increased drug usage among midlifers. But theyre groping in the dark. Such experiences can lead to many outcomes, depending on how the person handles them, not necessarily suicide.

Regarding the rise of happiness after midlife depression, some speculate that people may feel happier after their 40s because they’ve learned to count their blessings, or resign themselves to life goals they know theyll never achieve.

Based on my own work over the last few decades, I find these explanations unconvincing. The data only underscore the need for a new understanding of midlife; a new framework through which people could learn to deal more effectively with the positive and negative changes they encounter. Heres mine:

What Is MidlifeAnyway?

First, I think the term “midlife” is a misnomer. Psychologically, its really the portal into full adulthood, the time when you face the challenges of evolving into a fully adult human. Successfully crossing that portal involves addressing some core questions: “What am I living for?” “What’s the purpose of my life?”

These questions are the source of most adult emotional conflicts, because facing them often arouses tremendous fear, denial or escapism. After all, were highly conditioned to define ourselves by what we have rather than who we are. We learn to turn away from looking down the road, where we see Death patiently awaiting us all, as that 47 yearold woman did in her nightmare. The economic downturn that began in September 2008 has added to the fears about what may lie ahead.

Moreover, midlife actually kicks in around 35. Thats when most people start Continue reading

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The Casualties of War…Coming Home

Before the murders started, Anthony Marquezs mom dialed his sergeant at FortCarson to warn that her son was poised to kill.

It was February 2006, and the 21-year-old soldier had not been the same since being wounded and coming home from Iraq eight months before. He had violent outbursts and thrashing nightmares. He was devouring pain pills and drinking too much.

He always packed a gun.

It was a dangerous combination. I told them he was a walking time bomb, said his mother, Teresa Hernandez.

His sergeant told her there was nothing he could do. Then, she said, he started taunting her son, saying things like, Your mommy called. She says you are going crazy.

Eight months later, the time bomb exploded when her son used a stun gun to repeatedly shock a small-time drug dealer in Widefield over an ounce of marijuana, then shot him through the heart.

So begins “The Casualties of War,” by Dave Philipps, which appeared recently in the Colorado Gazette

It was forwarded to me by my old friend David Addlestone, who founded the National Veterans Legal Services Program in Washington, DC and led it for many years, until stepping down in 2008. Addlestone whom the American Bar Association called a Human Rights Herowho dedicated his entire professional career to vindicating the rights of the often scorned warriors…has fought for veterans legal rights for decades, going back to the Vietnam era.

So its no surprise that he would be calling attention to this latest human rights tragedy underway regarding the mental health of our returning veterans and the behavior their psychological condition provokes.

Philipps article documents chilling accounts of the emotional damage suffered by many vets, often leading to violence, murder and self-destructive behavior both while on duty and especially after the vets return to normalcy. Unfortunately the military appears to not take very seriously — and even eggs on, in some cases — the mental traumas that the returning soldiers bring with them. See the rest of Philipps article at http://tinyurl.com/ngo3hz

Our elected officials and our institutions need to address this, perhaps with a war-to-peace transition program Continue reading

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Obama should keep using the word “empathy”

President Obama recently shifted away from speaking about empathy as an important quality in a Supreme Court justice, in favor of an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. A nice phrase, but I think he should stick with empathy, and not let the Right redefine the term as theyve been doing.

I feel compelled to weigh in on this in part because I introduced the term empathy deficit disorder in an article I wrote in the Washington Post in the recent past.There, I argued that our culture suffers from a dearth of empathy; absolutely necessary today for effective functioning, as individuals or a society, within our interconnected, post-globalized world.

Consider this: In the Bible King Solomon asked God for a heart that listens. Notice that he didnt ask for a head that thinks. Theres a reason: The head repository of the mind is more akin to a processor of information within a logical framework and sequence; like a computer program. It uses reason without context or real world judgment.

In contrast, the heart symbolizes the repository of wisdom; of judgment. And thats based on the accumulation of life experience, broadened perspectives, and tested values, including the consequences of the behavior they generate. Overall, it derives from a leavened character.

Empathy is central to judgment and wisdom. Its the capacity to step outside of yourself and experience the world of the other from the inside, so to speak. Its different from sympathy, which is based on identifying with something another person experiences; that is, relating it to your own self. For example, I feel sympathetic to her situation because thats what I felt when it happened to me.

But suppose you cant relate it to your own experience? Thats where empathy is critical, because it means stepping inside the mindset and emotional experience of the other person. With that immersion, you can make more judicious, fair, and wise assessments in relation to your actions — whether towards friend, foe, or someone whos neither.

In the Bible, God grants Solomons request, in the form of wisdom in your heart. Note He didnt say, wisdom in your head. He gave him discernment in administering justice. Further, it was said that the whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom that God had put in his heart.

The Right is trying to redefine empathy to mean — at best — personal emotional preferences; at worst, irrational emotion that drives behavior. Using this shift, they then advocate fact-based judgments, devoid of anything emotional. They are wrong in both efforts.

If an important matter in your life was being adjudicated, would you rather come before someone with a developed capacity for empathy, and who can access it in the service of administering justice; or, someone following a flow-chart of logical sequence as the basis for deciding the proper administration of justice?

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Psychological Resiliency Needs Redefinition In Today’s Chaotic World

Much talk in the media about the need to be “resilient” in the face of economic meltdown, career uncertainties, stress at home and work, etc. The conventional advice – like trying to “balance” work and life, managing your stress with proper exercise, diet, meditation, and focusing on positive thoughts and feelings to help you cope with it all — good stuff, per se, but it’s not going to help very much in this current world, which is transforming beneath our feet in ways that can be hard to fathom or deal with.

Conventional solutions aren’t effective because they point you to coping and managing with conventional conflicts. Our changing world requires much more of a proactive position – perspectives, emotional attitudes and actions that address a new reality: that our lives and well-being are totally interconnected, globally. We succeed or fail at work and in relationships to the extent that we can, in effect, “forget ourselves,” and focus on serving the larger, common good. It sounds like a paradox, but we’re all global citizens now, and whatever attitudes and actions support positive engagement — other people, co-workers, or missions larger than our own narrow self-interest – they circle back to increase success and security in our own lives.

 

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“Recession Anxiety”

We see increasing media reports about people suffering from “recession anxiety,” depression, and even worse. Apparently, stemming from the global economic meltdown and what it’s done to our sense of stability; our expectations of continued “success” in life. I think these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. We’re living in a world that has been changing in front of our eyes, and is creating new psychological and behavioral challenges for everyone.

In this post-globalized, totally interconnected world, our old definitions of the psychologically healthy adult no longer fit. We need new thinking, new criteria about what constitutes healthy emotional attitudes, behavior, mental perspectives, and personal values in today’s world. I think thatoutward success and internal well-being are interwoven with responsibilities for the common good – the larger human community and the planet. We’re all global citizens, now. That shift calls for a new picture of psychological health and how to build it, individually and socially.

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