There's an old saying: If you want to see into your future, just look into a mirror. It's how you live your life each day -- through your choices, values and behavior -- that steadily shapes and determines who you will become in the future.
Many people today don't like what they see when they look into that mirror. They see themselves trying to make it through the day when so much feels out of control or dead-ended: Economic decline, with no end in sight. Social and political shifts that are frightening, maybe dangerous. Career uncertainties that no one is immune to. Relationships that unravel under stress. Ever-increasing climate disasters that politicians deny or ignore. The list goes on.
All of these realities of life today impact your mental health and overall well being. Research and survey data show that emotional, physical and social symptoms are rising: Depression and anxiety; obesity; demagoguery from commentators like Glen Beck; emotional disturbances and violence in the workplace.
All of this can make you feel confused and uncertain, not knowing which way to go. How can you navigate through it in a psychologically healthy way? And how to best deal with a cultural and political environment that treats self-serving, shortsighted behavior as a virtue? In my posts I've been addressing the impact of living in our new world of "social psychosis" upon our psychological and societal health. In this one I describe three ways that help refocus and redirect your life in positive ways.
1. Wake Up!
Common lore is that it's harmful to wake up a person who's sleepwalking, but that's not true. And when you're been sleepwalking in your life it's especially crucial to wake up to some important truths about yourself. That's one resource for health, today. Those truths include what really drives your life, your values, your beliefs and your conflicts; what lies behind the denials, rationalizations and social fictions you've created or bought into along the way.
We all have hidden drivers. That's part of growing up as a human. Waking up to them means facing and working at rectifying whatever's been unexamined or unresolved in your life. Those drivers are mostly unconscious and usually products of old childhood and family-based conflicts. People tend to repeat and reenact them through adulthood. As Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead -- in fact, it's not even past."
In addition to old traumas are the consequences of having taken a wrong path in life. Perhaps a decision that you now regret, or one that was based on fear. Those can also keep you locked in place and uncertain about how to handle new challenges.
Waking up to painful truths can feel frightening or humiliating. But it's a step along the road to restarting a sense of direction and self-directing your evolution. Examples include confronting feelings of deep self-loathing, or recognizing shame about expressing your needs, perhaps because your parents affirmed only the desires they approved of. It might mean facing up to a character trait you've been blind to, like arrogance or contempt. Therapy can be very helpful with these issues. But you can also practice honest self-examination on your own, through reflection, journal-keeping, meditation or prayer.
A marketing executive awakened to a pattern of being chronically drawn to relationships in which she felt invalidated and unaffirmed, both with lovers and bosses. That mirrored what she had felt as a child, when she was treated indifferently by her mother and rejected by her father. Such an awakening can arouse feelings of rage, loss and disappointment, perhaps from realizing what was done to you, or from what you did to yourself. But if you don't awaken, you could seal your fate. Like this woman had been doing, you might keep reenacting old themes over and over, telling yourself new versions of the same old lies ("This time, with him/her, it's going to be different!").
Another part of waking up is learning about your inborn temperament and how that impacts your sensitivities and needs. For example, how much or how little social interaction you enjoy? What are your reactions to light and sound?
Learning to penetrate through the cultural and gender attitudes you acquired as you grew into adulthood is also important. For example, our culture has taught that "success" in relationships and work is equivalent to possession and control -- getting it or submitting to it. This has created all sorts of emotional problems, individually and socially, especially when "failure" results. Take a look at how devastated people can feel when they suffer a career setback. That experience has become exacerbated since the economic downturn began in the fall of 2008.
2. Lose Your Mind
Henry Miller once wrote, "Don't try to change the world ... change worlds!" He was referring to the liberating experience of looking at your life situation from a very different mental perspective than your habitual one. I've described this type shift in previous posts about creating new solutions to relationship conflicts and workplace dilemmas. But more broadly, "losing your mind" can be helpful for creating fresh ways of thinking and feeling about your life in many areas, especially when you feel stagnant or uncertain.
For example, try envisioning what it would look like to behave differently in some situation that's confusing or causing conflict. Picture yourself in a movie about it, and create different scenarios, alternative "takes" for the same scenes. Or, imagine yourself as the character in a novel, and that you are writing the story as it proceeds. Just picturing in your mind alternative ways of seeing yourself can free up the new energy you need for identifying new directions or solutions.
Jane, a media executive, sought help for dealing with a new but faltering relationship. Her emotional mindset was such that she viewed herself as "the problem" because of what she assumed was "chronic insecurity." With help to visualize a different "take" of her story, she began reframing her insecurity not as a deformity but as her response to a partner who withdraws from conflict. That is, her insecurity was the product of something she brought to her relationships, combined with the kind of man she was drawn to, to start with. She also saw parallels in chronic conflicts with some coworkers on her team. Doing this opened up new possibilities for how she could grow and change her relationships in healthier directions.
Creating a different mindset can also help when you have a setback or loss in your career. For example, a senior executive who had enjoyed a stellar career was suddenly faced with "failure" when he was let go in the current economic downturn. He felt depressed and rudderless. What helped him unfreeze was to define what had made him successful in the past, different from the career roles that he had always used to define himself.
Using the analogy of the children's toy, Lego Blocks, he visualized himself as a set of strengths and capacities, rather than a series of roles. Those capacities could be reconfigured and redeployed in different ways -- just as you can use Lego Blocks to make different objects. They had been the keys to his previous career success. He saw that he could use them in other kinds of roles than just his previous ones.
As you practice "Waking Up" and "Losing Your Mind," wisdom starts to accrue -- a valuable commodity. The more you can see, the more you can understand and then create more effective, positive actions in response. That is, wisdom reflects broad perspective, sort of like the expanded vision you have looking from the top of a tall building vs. standing on the street. That helps you with the third step for redirecting your life: Applying your self-awareness and broadened mindset to your daily actions.
3. Push the Envelope
Put yourself in new environments, situations or relationships that require you to stretch in new directions -- one's that help you evolve and grow.
For example, a man had become aware of arrogant and superior attitudes that he'd been demonstrating towards others. He decided that he wanted to diminish those attitudes and grow his capacity for greater empathy. He knew it would take some work. For him, one path that helped was undertaking volunteer work that, in effect, "required" him to practice compassion and giving. That was like strengthening a muscle. The more he "exercised" it, the more it grew.
Of course, reactivating your life with purpose, clarity and direction comes at a price: all of your actions from the past remain a part of you. But those don't have to be a negative for you. In fact, they can inform you about what you need to rectify or build on in order to redirect your life, starting now. When you awaken, shift your mindset and undertake new actions, you're always incorporating all the consequences of your past. That's what creates greater wisdom in the present.
For example, some people were damaged by ignorant, abusive or narcissistic parents. Some voluntarily hurt themselves, as well, by foolish actions or decisions. Positive change in your life builds upon integrating and accepting responsibility for all of that. Forgiveness and compassion towards yourself and others is key. Without it, you don't grow. You remain like a computer program that's become frozen.
Learning from the consequences of your past helps you restart and self-direct your life, whether in your relationships or any other part of your life. Every moment provides a new opportunity for doing that. If you take it, that is. As the legendary Yankee manager Casey Stengel said, "There comes a time in every man's life, and I've had plenty of them."
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development, in Washington, DC. dlabier@CenterProgressive.org