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"Dude...What Happened to my Mental Health?" - Part 1

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Part one of a two-part series

My initial post was about the need to revise what psychological health and emotional resiliency are, today, in the face of major worldwide transformations rippling through all lives and societies. New criteria for health are necessary for sustaining success and growth in your career, your love relationships, and in your role as a global citizen. My future posts will be about psychological health in those areas. But in this two-part post, I want to explain more fully the changes that require rethinking what a psychologically healthy adulthood looks like and what can help you build it.

We're Locked Into 20th Century Thinking
Throughout most of the last century we've pretty much equated psychological health with good management and coping skills. That is, managing stress in your work and personal life (and we know there's plenty of that). And effective coping with, if not resolution of, whatever emotional conflicts you brought with you into adulthood (And don't kid yourself. Everybody brings along some).

At work that meant being clear about your career goals and knowing how to move up a fairly predictable set of steps, while managing relationships along the way. The goal: achieving power, recognition and financial success. Our culture -- including the mental health field -- has more or less equated those three with adult maturity and psychological health.

At home, it meant managing and coping with the power struggles and conflicts thought to be part of any relationship, and that might otherwise lead to affairs or divorce. The assumption was that a healthy adult learns compromise at best, or disguised manipulation at worst. And if you find your intimate connection diminishing from a flame to a pilot light over time, well, you accept that as "normal."

In my view, equating psychological health with successful adaptation to conventional values and beliefs was a flawed model of positive development to begin with. But the fallout from the worldwide upheaval during the last few years has turned even that view upside down.

Sure, you've got to be able to manage conflicts that could derail your career or intimate relationship. But doing that isn't enough to ensure sanity or well-being in our turbulent, interdependent and interconnected world. We now face a host of new emotional and behavioral challenges for building a psychologically healthy, well-functioning and fulfilling life.

Welcome to the "New Normal"
Even those who've functioned pretty well in the past now feel that the ground is shifting beneath their feet. The emotional attitudes, goals and behavior they assumed would ensure successful, fulfilling lives now leave them at a loss. They're now hit with the emotional impact of living and working in an unpredictable new environment. Consequently, their anxiety about the future of their own and their children's lives grows each day. They feel increasing confusion about their values, their life purpose and security.

There's the former Wall Street financial executive who told me he'd always defined himself by "making it through the next end zone" in his career, working long hours to ensure financial success. His career crumbled, and he found he had sacrificed not only time with his family but also his health: He has diabetes and high blood pressure. "Kind of a reverse 'deal-flow,'" he lamented, sardonically.

And the management consultant, pressured to ratchet up her travel to keep her career afloat. "I'd been coping with everything, I thought," she told me, "though I don't like needing Zoloft to do it." Instead of increasing stability as she gained seniority, her career propelled her into an even wilder ride. "Now I don't have enough time for my daughter or my husband," she said. "What kind of life is this? . . . My husband's checked out, emotionally. And what am I teaching my daughter?"

Unanticipated events have created a steady state of turmoil in all sorts of ways. For example, the actions of mortgage lenders in the U.S. that triggered worldwide economic upheaval in the fall of 2008 continues to impact everyone's lives around the globe. New global business paradigms can create new competitors or put your company out of business. Turbulent shifts in weather, water and food shortages, climate change and climate disasters impact everyone's lives, present and future. And the threat of terrorism is always a scary backdrop in everybody's lives.

All of this impacts you mentally, at work and at home. Companies look for ways to create more green business and sustainable practices in the face of climate change. That generates creates new stresses for leadership; it demands innovative thinking from everyone. A rising business model that combines financial success with serving the common good, promoted by singer-social activist Bono and other social entrepreneurs, requires new skills and mindsets to make that transition.

New challenges and uncertainties for long-term career and business success result. For example, the management culture of organizations is increasingly unpredictable. You have to be constantly pro-active, innovative and creative on behalf of your own career development. It's suicidal to take anything for granted. At the same time, both younger and older workers want their work to have impact on something more meaningful than just their own personal gain, but not give that up, either.

In relationships, men and women look for mutual respect and authenticity, regardless of whether they're in the form of traditional marriage or cohabitation; whether they're man-woman or same-sex unions. Surveys show they want connected but equal partnerships, unfettered by old game-playing or "rules."

All of these shifts create disequilibrium and significant challenge to your psychological well-being. Just trying to manage or cope with stress isn't enough; there's always something unanticipated just around the corner. Trying to "balance" work and life just creates constant stress because the world is in a chronic state of imbalance. And healing your emotional conflicts from childhood, while important, isn't enough to help you find the healthiest ways to deal with life in today's world.

In Part 2 I'll explain that we've mistakenly defined psychological health as, essentially, a well-functioning child or sibling within a grown-up world. I'll describe some new criteria for becoming "adult" yourself; for creating greater well-being in your own life and the lives of others in our interdependent world.

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