The world is changing fast. We’d better be prepared. Survivalists stock up on food and guns. I recommend we stock up on mental and emotional health.
Becoming psychologically stronger is likely the best investment anyone can make right now. This strength puts us in a better position to weather social and environmental disorder and to establish the best solutions and policies going forward.
As we all know, civilization is staggering from the toxic effects of terrorism, mass killings, warfare, financial instability, resource depletion, population displacements, social and international dissension, incompetence, corruption, and, of course, climate change. We might be spared utter calamity, but overall conditions may well worsen before they get better.
Climate change alone, psychologists tell us, has been shown to increase citizens’ rates of anxiety, depression, and traumatization. “These symptoms,” they say, “can exist for years after experiencing the loss of homes, livelihoods, and community resources” from storms and floods. The medical journal, The Lancet, reports that mental-health disorders are among the most dangerous of the indirect health effects of global warming.
These effects can be felt even when we haven’t yet experienced direct loss from weather events. Troubling many of us is an underlying anxiety, as well as a sense of helplessness and guilt, concerning the degraded planet we’re leaving to our descendants. Those who deny the scope of the crisis might be at risk of degrading their humanity and descending into mental mediocrity or even stupidity.
Psychological health not only makes us stronger to deal with personal challenges, but also empowers us collectively to create reforms and changes that lead to desired outcomes. We stay connected to our better self while preserving the ideals and promise of humanity. As an added consideration, emotional strength, which is a factor in the complex interactions that exist between mental and physical disease, often leads to fewer medical problems.
People around the world are already loaded up with anger, fear, anxiety, cynicism, depression, and despair. These psychological afflictions contribute to social and political disorder. The World Health Organization estimates that mental-health disorders account for 12 percent of the global burden of disease. In the United States, 40 million people are currently suffering from anxiety disorders. An estimated 26 percent of Americans ages 18 and older—about one in four adults—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Under worsening environmental and economic conditions, this malaise could spread like a plague. Those of us who have developed inner strength would be “vaccinated” against fear, helplessness, despair, and rage.
These figures above represent only mental-health disorders. The prevalence of neurosis is much higher. Neurotic people are troubled by inner conflict, yet the symptoms of their dysfunction are generally not as debilitating as with more serious psychological disorders. Nonetheless, neurotic individuals are prone under challenging circumstances to slip backwards into conditions of more troublesome dysregulation.
Of course, factors other than climate change are also emotionally challenging. Many kind decent people, seeing the extent of the social dysfunction around them, are succumbing to passive or bitter resignation. While conditions are indeed difficult, depth psychology has powerful insights to offer that can help us to discover our better self.
Here’s just one example of such insight. After reading a post of mine, a middle-aged gentleman in the Midwest emailed to justify what he called his “earned cynicism.” He said, in part:
It’s apparent as I age that my attitude has become more cynical. Our world, in my view, is becoming worse off. It’s so difficult now to disconnect from the daily frenzy. Accountability and self-responsibility are on the wane and living off the efforts of others is the norm. Yes, I’m cynical but I’ve earned it.
I recently returned from New York City and the frenetic pace was akin to underground rats scurrying to the next food source or mating call. I’ve stopped watching the news because it sours my mood. The effort required to make small changes in a bureaucracy is massive. Incompetent managers rise in the ranks because they go along with the “party line” rather than getting a better deal for employees and customers.
For years I’ve read numerous business tomes about moving organizations to the next level through innovation, risk-taking, integrity, etc. Yet such management approaches are largely ignored by ego-driven leaders who feather their own nests and fear their own incompetence. Some will self-destruct but many do not and are rewarded for their duplicity and selfishness. I’ve been told never to quit, but I also realize when enough is enough.
Certainly, this gentleman is entitled to be concerned about humanity’s shortcomings. But cynicism is toxic, and it’s fatal to one’s own vitality and personal development. Cynicism is a malignant misery that mires an individual in passivity. Unattended, it drains away creativity and passion. This man’s “earned cynicism” is a negative experience, and it will probably torment him as long as he believes he’s entitled to it.
In all likelihood, his cynicism serves as part of an unconscious defense. The cynicism is a symptom of (and a defense to cover up) his unconscious readiness to feel helpless to influence the social dysfunction he sees around him. (Helplessness is an old default position that goes back to both conscious and repressed memories of childhood.) The defense goes like this: “I’m not cultivating a feeling of being helpless or overwhelmed by all this dysfunction. If anything, I aggressively denounce it all. It is all beneath me. I want nothing to do with the world.” In adopting this defense, he’ll likely have to suffer the pangs of mounting cynicism and abject apathy.
He could also be engaged in “negative peeping.” This means he sees and fixates on what is “bad,” while conveniently overlooking all that is good, for the unconscious purpose of deepening the feeling of being helpless and overwhelmed by the “hopeless” state of the world. So he’s not being objective, although he believes he is.
If this man were not inwardly conflicted, he would recognize the dysfunction around him, yet still be able to live with a sense of integrity and purpose, which would make him part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
When we look inward with depth psychology, we can see the “programming” that has our inner weakness locked in place. As we recognize inner conflict, emotional attachments, and defenses, we can write new coding and become our own healers. We now see ourselves more objectively, particularly when triggered by everyday situations or events. In a way that’s mysterious and amazing, we no longer “go weak or negative” in the face of challenging daily experiences. Our consciousness grows, becoming more enlightened.
The best nutrition for self-development is self-knowledge, which produces growing, more evolved consciousness. We get that knowledge and acquire that consciousness by exploring our psyche. Don’t be misled by neuroscience, which claims that its explorations of the brain offer the best approach to understanding human nature and resolving negative emotions (read here and here.) The brain is like the hardware of our mind and emotional life, while consciousness is the software. Each of us can work with the software, while we leave the hardware to the technicians.
Psychological insights are the building blocks of evolving consciousness. Our consciousness belongs to us: It’s the foundation of our intelligence, and as it evolves it merges with our authentic self. Evolving consciousness is our own personal richness and power. It can’t be taxed or stolen from us, and it is especially powerful in resisting the negative side. It’s likely, as I see it, that our consciousness is immortal. What could pay more dividends than refining our consciousness, thereby escaping all the negativity that personally and collectively limits us, while possibly benefiting forever from this effort to better our humanity in the here-and-now?
When people are conflicted and neurotic, their mind might still be sharp and cunning but their consciousness is clouded. Their perceptions are distorted by their unconscious compulsion to replay and recycle unresolved negative emotions such as feeling refused, controlled, rejected, criticized, and unworthy. When people are not conscious of vital aspects of their psyche—such as the conflict between inner passivity and inner critic—these individuals, even when outwardly successful, are likely to experience some degree of self-alienation and be hindered from achieving their potential.
The world, for all its zaniness and dangers, is where we can thrive and fulfill our destiny when we dare to bare our psyche to our own self.