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 doesn’t work in the 21st Century; and what that means for building a psychologically healthy life in today’s world.
In this post I’ll explain why many of the conflicts men and women deal with today stem from this contradiction: The criteria for adult psychological health accepted by the mental health professions and the general public doesn’t really describe an adult. Nor, for that matter, does it describe psychological health.
A contradiction, to be sure, so let me explain: As we entered the world of the 21st Century our definition of psychological health was largely defined by the absence of psychiatric symptoms. The problem is, that’s like defining a happy person as someone who’s not depressed. Moreover, sometimes what appears to be a psychiatric symptom reflects movement towards greater health and growth in a person’s life situation.
But more significantly, our conventional view of psychological health is, in effect, a well-adapted, well-functioning child in relation to parents or parent figures. Or, a sibling who interacts appropriately in a social context with other siblings. Either way, it describes a person functioning within and adapted to a world shaped and run by “parents,” psychologically speaking.
That is, we pretty much equate healthy psychological functioning with effective management or resolution of child- or sibling-based conflicts. For example, resolving and managing such child-based conflicts as impulse control; narcissistic or grandiose attitudes; and traumas around attachment, from indifference, abandonment, abuse, or parenting that otherwise damages your adult capacity for intimacy or trusting relationships.
Healthy resolution of sibling-type conflicts includes learning effective ways to compete with other “siblings” at work or in intimate relationships; managing your fears of success or disapproval; containing passive-aggressive, manipulative or other self-undermining tendencies; and finding ways to perform effectively, especially in the workplace, towards people whose approval, acceptance and reward you need or crave.
It’s no surprise, then, that many people feel and behave like children in a grown-up world. Examples permeate popular culture. A good one is the popular TV show, “The Office.” It often portrays the eruption of these sibling-type conflicts, as the workers act out their resentments or compete with one another to win the favor of office manager Michael, another grown-up child who is self-serving and clueless about his own competitive motives and insecurity.
Unconscious child-type conflicts are often visible within intimate relationships and family life, as well. They provide a steady stream of material for novels and movies. You can see, for example, fears of abandonment in a man who demands constant attention and assurance that he’s loved; or low-self worth in a woman who’s unconsciously attracted to partners who dominate or manipulate her. Of course it’s critical that you learn to become aware of and manage effectively whatever emotional damage you bring from your early experiences into adulthood. We all have some. That’s a good starting point for adult psychological health, but it’s not sufficient. A well-adapted member of a community of other “children” and “siblings” within a psychological world of “parents” is not the same thing as a healthy adult. Especially not within today’s interconnected, non-linear world.
So – without a picture of what a healthy adult would feel, think and do in the current environment, you’re left with questions but few answers. For example:
- How can you maintain the mental focus to keep your career skills sharp and stay on a successful path at work when you suddenly acquire a new boss who wants to take things in a new direction? Or if your company is acquired by another, or goes out of business?
- How can you best respond, mentally, if you have a new baby and a drop in family income at the same time that globalization sidetracks your career?
- How can you handle the pressure to work longer or do more business travel when your spouse faces the same demands?
- What’s the healthiest way to keep your relationship alive with fresh energy – or avoid the temptation of an affair?
- And how do you deal emotionally with the threat of terrorism — always lurking in the background of your mind — while enjoying life at the same time?
We now live within a world where the only constant is change, and where a new requirement is being able to compete and collaborate with everyone from everywhere about almost everything.
Doing that with self-awareness and knowledge of how to grow and develop all facets of your being – that’s the new path to adult psychological health. But you need to know where to find the path.
Learning From The Business World?
Actually, I think we can learn a lot about what’s needed for psychological health from changes occurring in the business world. In many respects, the most progressive companies are ahead of the game. They’ve had to learn ways to build sustainable practices, in the face of climate change. They’ve learned to develop models of collaboration and connection; ways to engage with and learn from diverse people and talents.
They’ve had to develop strategies for navigating through a tumultuous, global economy and remain successful, while dealing with anxieties that are part of charting a course in unknown territory, as Robert Rosen has described in Just Enough Anxiety.
All of the above applies to the men and women I work with, both through executive consulting and in psychotherapy. They’re in the trenches, dealing with constant change and conflict in their business or career environment, and in their personal lives. Some are looking for ways to have clear impact from their work and talents, beyond just acquiring power or money, or even “meaning.” Some are company leaders figuring out how to link long-term financial success with environmental and social responsibility. Others are individuals trying to heal emotional conflicts in their personal lives, or find ways to help their children prepare for a future whose biggest constant will be change.
Trends in the business community are relevant to a new model adult psychological health, because each of us needs to develop ways to deal with new domestic and global uncertainties that can hit home any day, in our individual lives, and the business world has been gradually doing this already. That is, progressive businesses can teach us something about psychological health is because they’re already illustrating it.
Take the example of Google. If it were a person, Google would display in many respects the model of a psychologically healthy adult relevant to today’s world. Its corporate culture and management practices embody such qualities like transparency, flexibility and collaboration with diverse people. Non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mind-set and nimbleness, all aimed at aggressively competing for clear goals within a constantly evolving environment.
Similarly, a successful and psychologically healthy life reflects building those qualities into your emotional attitudes, mental perspectives and behavior; especially such capacities as cooperation and service to something larger than yourself.
If you confine your view of psychological health to good “management” of your conflicts – the old 20th Century view – that will keep you too focused on self-interest, especially power, money, possessions. And that will take you down a dead-end today. Focusing on self-interest is an ineffective strategy in today’s interconnected world. It leaves you feeling like a vulnerable child rather than an adult when forces outside your control disrupt your world and your self-centered goals.
Of course, we have to take care of ourselves. But banking just on self-interest to achieve long-term success and internal well-being is like expecting to get to your destination while standing in place because you’re more comfortable there.
A successful and psychologically healthy adult subordinates self-interest to the common good; to serving something larger than just yourself; not just your narrow goals. This is based on the awareness that your own well-being is intertwined with that of others who share this global community; that all of us are parts of an interdependent whole, like organs of the same body. The psychologically healthy adult learns to become proactive, innovative and creative; enjoys growing and developing within a changing environment, and with diverse people; values positive connection and is flexible in situations of conflict.
Overall, being a healthy adult – the “parent,” yourself — requires broad, tolerant perspectives and purposeful actions in the service of clear objectives. That’s the foundation for supporting the well-being and survival of the global community, including future generations. In effect, it’s being an engaged global citizen. That may sound like a tall order, but those are human, not super-human capacities. They exist within most everyone.
A good way to describe the path to psychological health – including external success and internal well-being – is learning to “forget yourself.”
Yes, that’s a paradox. In future posts I’ll explain what I mean, and what it looks like in your work, your relationships, and in your actions as a global citizen.