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Why Learning to 'Forget Yourself' Is Important for Psychological Health Today

The irony is that a self-absorbed person is much less able to handle today's flood of life dilemmas and challenges in positive, creative, solution-oriented ways.
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At the conclusion of my earlier post about the psychologically healthy adult, I argued that these qualities -- transparency, flexibility, collaboration with diverse people, non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mind-set and nimbleness -- are among those that build and sustain resiliency and overall psychological health in today's world.

From both my clinical experience and my consulting to business leaders I'm convinced that a successful and psychologically healthy life depends on your cultivating those qualities into your emotional attitudes, mental perspectives and daily behavior. In this post I describe an important pathway for that: learning to "forget yourself."

It's a paradox. Does it mean not thinking about your own needs? Or not looking out for yourself? Not really. I use "forget yourself" to highlight an orientation towards putting yourself in the service of problems, needs and solutions that lie beyond just your own concerns or desires.

That is, take a person who's too absorbed in his or her own self, own conflicts, own disappointments and the like. In other words, most of us. The irony is that such a person is much less able to handle today's flood of life dilemmas and challenges in positive, creative, solution-oriented ways. That deficiency circles back to create dysfunction, damaged relationships and career downturns. We see all of the latter in the lives of people we know, public figures, even ourselves.

I'll be writing more posts about specific ways you can learn to "forget yourself" in your work, your relationships and in your role as a "global citizen." But here are some initial guidelines that help lay the foundation, based on what I've learned and observed from the men and women I've worked with:

Carrying Out Our Three Responsibilities
Think about our having responsibilities as a human being living in today's world, and on this planet. Specifically, consider the following three. They can serve as helpful guidelines for moving through and beyond the tendency we all share: to focus too much on our own selves, our narrow self-interest, in a world of interdependence.

Responsibility for your own mind-body-spirit
Recognize that it's your job, alone to continue learning and developing your emotional, mental, creative and physical capacities. Enlarging these capacities increases the flexibility and adaptability you need to deal with the changes that bombard us -- good or bad. Don't become like the character John Marcher in Henry James' "The Beast In The Jungle," who waited passively, believing that something significant was going to happen... and ended up with a failed life.

Responsibility for those less able
Among the new criteria for psychological health is this awareness: You grow, psychologically, through your efforts to help and support others less able than yourself find and follow a healthy path in this world. Find someone who needs and would welcome your aid, whether your children or family member. But stretch further, to include a stranger or those within the extended world community who, for example, suffer from lack of clean water, from famine, disease or torture. Organizations and individuals who could use your help are a click away on the Internet.

Responsibility for the planet
Reflect on the fact that your actions at home or in your community can help maintain a healthy, sustainable planet for future inhabitants, including your own descendants. Or, they can further jeopardize the environment they will live in. Look at your own actions in your home, your community and at work. Ask yourself, are you becoming a "good ancestor?"

Some Steps You Can Take

Loosen the grip of self-interest
Use self-awareness to observe -- and contain -- your self-serving tendencies. It's human to have them and healthy, to keep them at bay. In my view, emotional well-being and success in today's world is interwoven with how well you engage and connect with something larger than your own needs and desires. Don't neglect them, but when they dominate your field of vision, your heart shuts down. You can't build the tolerance and proactive behavior that you need to keep "evolving." An old saying goes, "If you want to see into your future, look into a mirror." Everything you think, say, and do, steadily molds who you're becoming down the road. What do you see in that mirror?

Practice connection and engagement
The metaphor of Google that I used in a previous post is a good guide for stretching yourself towards actions and attitudes that promote positive engagement. Seek out ways to engage in and demonstrate greater collaboration, non-defensiveness, informality, a creative mindset, flexibility and nimbleness. Assess yourself along these criteria -- in your life as a worker, in your relationships and as a member of the larger human community. Identify which of those criteria you could strengthen, and then begin to do it.

Identify your commonalities with others
Focus on what you have in common with others rather than on the surface differences between you. That builds empathy, especially important for success within an increasingly diverse society. Research shows that you can train your brain to do this. Begin by stepping outside your own mental and emotional perspectives and visualize entering another person's inner world. Seek to understand it, no matter how different from your own. Remember, what's "right" from one perspective may be "wrong" from another. As I wrote in a previous post, empathy is a core ingredient of adult psychological health. It helps expand your mental and emotional perspectives to more fully understand those with whom you have differences -- without having to abandon your own views.

Reduce the gaps between your public and private life
Politicians aren't the only people whose public image is sometimes at odds with their private actions: We all have gaps between our motives or values and how we present ourselves in pubic. Aim for transparency in your interactions and transactions. Better it comes from you than from discovering it's been posted on Google or YouTube. More deeply, reflect on unconscious attitudes that might drive your behavior. As the philosopher and mathematician Pascal wrote, "The heart has reasons of its own, which Reason itself is unaware of." Seek help when you suspect you're being pulled by emotions or behavior you don't understand or just can't deal with. But find a mental health practitioner who's tuned in to a more evolved, integrated picture of adult health.

Shift your perspective in difficult life situations
Too often, we personalize negative experiences and react with resentment or self-undermining actions. That's another form of self-centeredness. Healthy adult behavior here means recognizing those tendencies in yourself but not indulging in them. In short, aim towards not taking things personally. Be "indifferent" to those reactions by focusing your energies instead on creating a pro-active, realistic strategy that either improves your situation or changes it. "Indifference" in this sense activates your creative problem-solving capacity for dealing with conflicts at home or at work, as I wrote in a previous post about intimate relationships.

Define your "life footprint"
Imagine you have one or two years left to live. An unpleasant thought, for sure, but it can help in this way: Make a list of what you would want to contribute to the world through your emotional, intellectual and creative powers during your remaining time. This focuses you on thinking about what kind of "footprint" you want to leave on the larger community and the planet. What does that require of you, from this point forward? As an aid, write down how you currently apply your mental and emotional capacities, and what that means long-term. Think of your life as a work of art that you're creating along the way. When you envision reaching the end-point, what will the picture look like that reveals your purpose for having been here? Do you want to make any changes, starting now?

There are people who illustrate some of the above themes as they shift towards healthier lives. For example, a corporate executive who stepped back and identified new business opportunities through sustainable, "green" practices, and initiated them throughout the company. Inspired by Bono's (Product) Red campaign, he created a company project that supported a philanthropic goal. "It was time to bring my personal values into alignment with my business perspectives," he said. Like others who are beginning to think in similar directions, he sees business success as interwoven with serving the common good.

Or the couple who revamped their relationship by reviewing what they wanted their "life footprint" to be. They realized they wanted a greater sense of connection and mutuality between themselves, but also through what they did with their talents and energies. One began a business that had been a longtime dream; the other moved to a company that provided more opportunity for growth and creative expression, but less money. "Sure, there are trade-offs," one of them told me, "but the bottom line is better for our lives. We feel more integrated, more engaged."

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D. is a business psychologist and psychotherapist in Washington DC, where he is director, Center for Progressive Development.

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