The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Douglas LaBier Headshot

"Dude...What Happened to my Mental Health?" - Part 2

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

In Part 2 of this post I contend that many emotional conflicts men and women deal with today stem from a contradiction: That 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.

Here's why: As we entered the 21st Century psychological health was largely defined by the absence of psychiatric symptoms. And that's like defining a happy person as someone who's not depressed. Health is not the same as symptom relief. Moreover, sometimes what appears to be a psychiatric symptom actually reflects movement towards greater health and growth.

But more significantly, our view of psychological health is, essentially, a well-adapted, well-functioning child. Or, a sibling who interacts appropriately in a social context with other siblings. Either way, that describes a person functioning within and adapted to a world shaped and run by "parents," psychologically speaking.

Therefore, we equate healthy psychological functioning with effective management or resolution of child- or sibling-based conflicts. For example, resolving and managing child-based conflicts like impulse control; narcissistic or grandiose attitudes; and traumas around attachment based on indifference, abandonment, abuse, or parenting that damages your adult capacity for intimacy or trusting relationships.

Healthy resolution of sibling-type conflicts includes learning effective competition 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 relate towards people whose approval, acceptance and reward you need or crave.

It's no surprise, then, that many people feel and behave like kids in a grown-up world. Examples permeate popular culture. For example, the popular TV show, "The Office." It portrays the eruption of sibling-type conflicts, as workers act out their resentments or compete with each other to win the favor of office manager Michael - another grown-up child who's self-serving and clueless about his own competitive motives and insecurity.

Unconscious child-type conflicts are visible within intimate relationships and family life, as well. 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's unconscious attraction 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 brought from childhood into adulthood. That's a necessary starting point for adult psychological health, but it's not sufficient. A well-adapted member of a community of "children" and "siblings" within a psychological world of "parents" is not the same thing as a healthy adult. Especially not within today's interconnected, unpredictable world.

To know what a healthy adult would feel, think and do in the current environment requires answering questions like these:

  • How can you maintain the mental focus for keeping your career skills sharp and staying on a successful path at work when a new boss appears and wants to take things in a new direction? Or if your company is acquired, or goes out of business?
  • How can you best respond, mentally, if you have a new baby and your family income drops 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 during daily stress and multitasking?
  • How do you deal emotionally with the threat of terrorism or climate change, while enjoying life at the same time?
We now live within a world where the change is constant, and it's 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 into a full human being -- that's the new path to adult psychological health.

Learning From The Business World?
Actually, I think we can learn much about building psychological health from changes in the business world. In many respects, successful, progressive companies are ahead of the game. They've had to create new, sustainable practices in the face of climate change. They've been creating new models of collaboration and connection; and strategies to engage with, support and learn from diverse people and talents.

Companies are learning to navigate successfully through a tumultuous, global economy by embracing, rather than fearing the anxieties that are part of charting a course through unknown territory, as Robert Rosen has described in Just Enough Anxiety.

Business people are in the trenches, dealing with constant change and conflict in their business or career environment, and in their personal lives, too. Many are looking to create more impact from their work and talents, not just seek power, money, or even personal "meaning." Some company leaders are inventing ways to link long-term financial success with environmental and social responsibility. Others are trying to heal emotional conflicts in their personal lives, or find ways to help their children prepare for an uncertain future.

Each of us needs psychologically healthy ways to deal with new domestic and global uncertainties that can hit home any day. Progressive businesses can teach us something about that because they're already illustrating it.

Take the example of Google. Its corporate culture and management practices embody transparency, flexibility and collaboration with diverse people; non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mind-set and nimbleness. All of these features are aimed at aggressively competing for clear goals within a constantly evolving environment.

Well, those very same qualities describe today's healthy personality. The psychologically healthy adult is 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; and embraces the anxiety that's always present as a guide to action.

The challenge is building those capacities into your emotional attitudes, mental perspectives and behavior. But if you confine yourself to good management of your conflicts - the old 20th Century view - that will take you down a dead-end. It keeps you too focused on serving your personal needs and wants in a fluid environment. It's an ineffective strategy and will leave you 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 the paradox is that you can't do that very well just by looking out for yourself. A psychologically healthy adult subordinates purely self-interest goals to a larger, common good; to serving something larger than narrow self-interest. The fact is, your own well-being is highly intertwined with that of others who share this global community. All of us are parts of an interdependent whole, like organs of the same body. The ripple effects of the economic meltdown throughout the world have made that clear.

Overall, a healthy adult -- being the "parent," yourself -- embodies broad, tolerant perspectives and purposeful actions in the service of clear objectives that benefit all. That's the foundation for supporting the well-being and survival of yourself, the global community and future generations. It's being an engaged global citizen. Now that may sound like a tall order, but those are human, not super-human capacities. They exist within most everyone.