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An Inside-Out Life: Protection From the Growing Backlash -- Part 1

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I think we're living in an era of increasing "social psychosis." I use that term deliberately to highlight a constellation of growing, shared delusions; a political-social backlash to the highly interconnected and diverse world that now exists. The delusions include political, economic and anti-science-based decisions and policies that appear likely to predominate for some time, as Paul Krugman and others have argued. And, they're likely to contribute to more social dysfunction and damage to individual lives, including psychological and physical health.

Because this backlash of false beliefs and harmful actions are likely to be with us for some time, it's important to build some immunity to their destructive impact on your life. In this post I describe a way that helps you do that. It also describes new criteria of a psychologically healthy life within today's increasingly interdependent and unpredictable world. I call it the "Inside-Out" solution.

By way of context, in a future post I'll explain why our "social psychosis" is likely to strengthen for some time, but will not last. That's because evidence from research, survey and demographic studies reveals massive shifts building within our society in this direction: A rising desire to subordinate purely self-interest motives in personal life and social/political policy to actions and policies that serve the larger common good.

This theme reflects a growing recognition that we're one world; that all of our lives are like organs of the same body. As President Obama recently put it, "...we rise or we fall together as one nation -- one people -- all of us vested in one another."

That relates to what I mean by the "Inside-Out" solution. First, let's look at some illustrations of why people's conflicts point the way to a new kind of solution; then I'll explain what that is. Here's a typical example, a struggling couple: She's a lawyer with a large firm; he's headed a major trade association, but was recently let go. They say they're committed to their marriage and to being good parents. But they also acknowledge that it's pretty hectic juggling all their responsibilities at work and at home in this shaky economic environment. Especially now, when one of them is searching for a new job. Dealing with the logistics of daily life, to say nothing of the emotional challenges, makes it "...hard just to come up for air," one of them says.

Then there's a 43 year-old man who's been having some career conflicts but is also worried about the "other side" of life: He's raising two teenage daughters and a younger son by himself -- one of the rising numbers of single fathers. He's constantly worried about things like whether a late meeting might keep him at work. He knows he can't risk his career in any way, not with these domestic responsibilities. He tries to have some time for himself, but "It's hard enough just staying in good physical health, let alone being able to have more of a 'life,' " he said.

These people illustrate some typical symptoms of living and working in an increasingly uncertain, unstable economic and social climate. Many feel pummeled and stressed in their work and home lives. They know that stress damages the body, mind and spirit, yet they feel caught in its trap. 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, especially since the post 9-11 world began.

Much stress comes from struggling with the pressures of work and home -- trying to "balance" both in an era in which nothing is secure anymore. But the truth is, you can't balance work life and home life, because both exist on the same side of the scale -- your "outer" life.

Your inner vs. outer life
On the other side of the scale is your "inner" life. Instead of thinking about how to balance work life and home life in today's world, reframe the issue: realize that it's healthier to bring your outer life and inner life into greater harmony. That is, strengthening your inner life helps insulate you against the political, emotional and financial deterioration that's likely to be impacting your life for some time.

Let me explain. Your outer life is the realm of the external, material world: Dealing with the logistics and daily stresses of life, the e-mails to respond to, the errands, family obligations, financial issues, building (or holding onto) your career, raising children, and so on. You get the picture.

Your outer life is where you experience pleasure or pain. In contrast, your inner life is where you can create wellbeing and clarity through the ups and downs that will occur in your outer life. It's the realm of who you are inside -- your emotional awareness, your values, secret desires and goals, your capacity for love, empathy, generosity, and your deeper sense of purpose; of what you're living for, especially when the external world is not so pleasant or predictable.

A developed inner life reveals how well you deal with your emotions, your degree of self-awareness and your level of mental repose. That is, your capacity for calm, focused action and your resiliency in the face of today's frenetic, uncertain outer life.

Most people today are not in tune very much with their inner lives. You can become so depleted and stretched by dealing with your outer life that there's little time to tend to your internal world. Then, you mistakenly identify your "self" mostly with who you are in the outer realm. And when there's little on the inner side of the scale, problems or setbacks in the outer realm weigh you down, at best. You can become emotionally damaged and suffer from anxiety or depression.

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

Moreover, when your inner life remains underdeveloped, your daily functioning is affected in a range of ways, both subtle and overt. For example, at work or when relating to your spouse or partner -- you may experience insecurities, betrayal or fear; and you can't tell which are justified and which are not.

You may find yourself at the mercy of anger or greed whose source you don't understand. And you don't know if they are "normal" or justified motives, given the reality of your situation. 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 you're maintaining success in parts of your outer life, neglecting the inner remains hazardous to your psychological and physical health. That's because you don't have sufficient capacity to regulate, channel and focus your energies with full awareness 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.

The extreme examples are people who destroy their outward success with behavior that reflects a complete disengagement from their inner lives: Corporate executives led away in handcuffs for corruption; self-destructive sports stars overcome by the trappings of their outer-life success; political leaders whose flawed personal lives destroy their credibility and careers; clerics who are staunch moralists at the pulpit but sexual predators or adulterers behind closed doors. These are our modern-day counterparts of Shakespearian characters like Macbeth or Coriolanus. Their outer lives are toppled over by unconscious aims, destructive arrogance or personal corruption.

In today's world, what you choose to go after in your outer life reflects values and behavior that you've been socially conditioned into through your family and society. Much of that can be hard to see because you're so immersed in it. What gets lost along the way is what your inner life could tell you about the consequences and value of what you're pursuing in your outer life. And knowing that is especially important in today's world, when political and social upheaval steadily bombards your outer life.

The good news is that strengthening your inner life builds greater health, internal wellbeing and psychological resilience. That is, servicing your inner life increases healthy, positive control -- mastery and self-directed action, not suppression or rationalization. A stronger inner life creates a solid moral core. It informs your choices and actions by providing the calm and centeredness that's essential for knowing what demands or allures of the outer world you want to go after, or let pass; and how to deal with the consequences of either. It helps you navigate through the unpredictable events and uncertainties that continue to lie ahead.

For example, your inner life can clarify which of the personal commitments, career goals and relationships you want or don't want. Whether this job or career is what you really desire, despite the money it pays or what people tell you that you should want. And, whether you believe that your relationship gives you and your partner the kind of positive, energized connection you want and need.

In short, a strengthened inner life brings your "private self" and your "public self" into greater harmony. That's the foundation for dealing with the stress-potential of outer world choices, conflicts and uncertainties, today; for knowing how and why you're living and using your energies out there in the ways that you do. With a strong inner life you feel grounded and anchored. You know who you are and what you're truly living for. You're tuned in to yourself with a "heart that listens," as King Solomon asked for.

Finding The Gaps

A financial consultant who consulted me was noticeably underdeveloped in his inner life. One day he came face-to-face with a dilemma that triggered an important awakening. He was debating whether to leave an out-of-town meeting early, which would create some difficulties, in order to be at home for his daughter's 18th birthday. It was a conflict, because his business had been hard-hit by the recession and he felt pressured to do whatever was necessary for his work.

So I asked him this question, from a different perspective: Which choice would he be more likely to feel positive about at the end of his life? Tears came to his eyes as he said that he knew in his heart that it was being at his daughter's birthday. He told me that he felt enormously troubled by the fact that he'd been trying to rationalize away what he knew he valued more deeply, rather than figure out how to best manage the risk, career-wise.

At that moment he was able to see the gap between his inner life values and the choice he was about to make based on his outer life conditioning. A good step towards awakening your inner life is to identify the gaps between what you believe in on the inside, and what you tend to do on the outside. Everyone has those gaps. Here's an exercise that can help you awaken to them:

  • First, make a list of what you believe to be your core, internal values or ideals (5- 10 entries). Perhaps it includes raising a strong, creative child; close friendships; expressing a creative talent that's important to you. It might include your spiritual life; an intimate marriage or partnership; or contributing your talents, energies or success to the society in some way that has impact.
  • Next, make a parallel list for each item on your list, describing your daily actions relative to those values: How much time and energy do you spend on them in real time? What are your specific behaviors regarding each? Be detailed in your answers -- note the last time you took an action aimed at nurturing that creative child, building your marriage or giving some meaningful help to the less fortunate. Don't be surprised or ashamed if you find that very few of your daily activities reflect those key values.
  • Assign a number from 1 to 5 measuring the gap between each value and your behavior - 1 representing a minimal gap; 5, the maximum.
  • Identify the largest gaps. Now think about how your inner values could redirect your outer life choices in those areas. What would you have to do to bring the inner you in synch with the outer you? What can you commit yourself to doing?
  • Write it all down and set a reasonable time frame for reducing your gaps.
Developing your inner life is a practice. Think of it like building a muscle or developing skill in a sport or musical instrument. Part 2 of this post describes some practices most anyone can do to build a stronger inner life. They involve your mind, body, spirit and actions in daily life. The more you do, the better, because they reinforce each other. Overall, they help you build greater psychological health and the proactive resilience that's necessary for successful navigation through today's changing world.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development, in Washington, DC. He can be reached at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org

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