Internal Development

Psychology Today had a great article on age and relevance. Author Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area and a student of Jewish mysticism. I thought it should be shared.

A man I once saw came to me because of his frustration with getting older. A hard-driving former CEO, physically active all his life, he was really struggling as he watched his body and his relevance in the world diminish. He was comfortable financially, he had his overall physical health, he no longer needed to work—and he said he felt like he was basically just waiting to die. “What’s the point?” he would ask me. “I’m not who I used to be and it’s only going to get worse.”

Men are encouraged, and probably to some extent are genetically engineered, to focus on external performance. It can take a myriad of forms: in achievements in the gym in the form of a powerful body; in some sport he excels in; in whatever vocation he chooses, whether via how much money he makes or how high he can climb in his chosen profession; or in seeking fame or power or some kind of celebrity in his corner of the world.

I believe the world needs this kind of ambition, that it fuels a forward motion for our species, even though it comes with all kinds of problems. And the problems this often unconscious ambition creates are very similar to the problems my client was struggling with: an emphasis on external achievement without being balanced by internal development.

So many men are more familiar with the details of their favorite team’s football statistics than they are with the inner workings of their own hearts. A millennial woman recently challenged me on that assumption: “Do you think it’s true for the men of today?” she asked me. I answered, “Yes—they just dress it up differently.”

The younger men I work with are, by and large, equally estranged from their inner worlds. Using overtly vulnerable language more readily is terrific, and leaves a man who does so less boxed in. But there still remains the hard work of inner exploration, and whether because of the pressures of providing for a family or just an absence of sufficient role models, this work is often left undone, even by younger men.

It can be hard to redirect a man’s attention from the external to the internal. There aren’t the same solid metrics to use as guideposts. This difficulty can be evident in something as concrete as accepting the need to pay a lot of money for therapy. “What am I getting for this?” the man may ask. “I’m not sure I can justify this.” Well, yes, you can justify it, if you are able to learn that the intangible and the internal are equally valuable, if not more so, than a new Tesla. You can have all the external trappings but if your inner world is impoverished or miserable, what have you really bought?

Carl Jung famously said that a man spends the first half of his life building his external world, and needs to spend the second half developing his internal world. As we age, this truism becomes all the more important as our physical bodies and external importance inevitably diminish. Without a rich inner world to explore when the outer world has lost its allure (or our ability to explore it is diminished), we become like the cliche of the high school star quarterback whose peak in life was at age 18.

If we can successfully navigate the transition from the external to the internal, we will discover that there are untold new territories to be explored that are richer than anything we found in our careers. And no physical or external diminishment need limit us in charting these new territories. Inner space is, I believe, the final frontier.”