In the wake of celebrity overdoses and suicides, and social media manipulating nearly every angle of our lives—from our conversations, to our meals, to our wardrobes, thereby seeping into the fabric of our personal and professional paradigms, Dr. Kevin Gilliland wants to help us reclaim possession over what is ours. A clinical psychologist and Executive Director of Innovation360, an outpatient counseling service with locations in Dallas and Austin, Texas, Gilliland has become one of the most sought-after mental health experts for elite media outlets such as People and Inside Edition, but that’s not what he is most fired up about. Rather, his aim is to challenge every mind he encounters to become clear about what it hates—solely for the purpose of creating a life it loves. Convinced this will raise the consciousness of the entire planet, he believes our vices are not the culprits per se, but that most all of us are guilty of “user error.” The good news? He has a design for its remedy.
To begin, it starts with waking up. “There has never been a greater time for us to self-monitor and become more self-aware than right now,” says Gilliland. “This pertains to food, to sex, to social media, to our careers and to information. That’s where the power lies.”
We live in an age where data is being constantly hurled at us—from work emails to the apps we never close out of, to the seductive spotlight of the social media stage we spend the majority of our waking hours standing upon. Gilliland says this has a direct impact on our mental health, and it bleeds through our career aspirations as much as it does our relationships, often acting as a cancer that threatens to destroy our sense of self. “We’re seeing some trending upwards of anxiety all across the board, and I think it’s because it’s the first time in history that we humans have had information pushed at us at volumes that we’ve never experienced. So many of us count our daily food calories, but I think we need to start thinking about counting our data calories,” he says. “Because they’re slowly killing us.”
Gilliland, author of Struggle Well, Live Well: 60 Ways to Navigate Life’s Good, Bad and In-Between, is currently writing his second book, which will be an exploration of the obscurities and nuances of anxiety. He holds a simple stance when it comes to monitoring the impressions social media inevitably leaves on our well-being: Whether used for connecting with friends or for giving a megaphone to the launch of a product, it should act as a catalyst for more enriched and vibrant modes of living. He believes it should only serve to draw us deeper into the nucleus of life, not light years away from it. “We should see something and be inspired by that idea or that image and then go visit that place or make that thing. It should open up some sort of new vista for us and motivate us back into living,” he says.
While it is undeniable that entrepreneurs and professionals are able to withdraw invaluable facets of motivation and strategy from the information circulating across their colleagues’ and competitors’ social media activities, Gilliland believes that few of us are immune to becoming anesthetized by the intoxication of its seemingly infinite offerings. “Most of us are not aware of the chemical releases we are getting from engaging on social media day after day. There have been some incredible studies of how people respond mood-wise to likes and shares,” he says. “It gets us high, and it creates a temporary feeling of having had real connection, but we’re just living in the shadow of the real thing.”
This is why, more than ever before, he is determined to use his platform to promote authenticity. One evening last week, Gilliland encountered inclement weather while traveling on business from Arkansas back to his home in Texas. The lightning was unmerciful, and the rain was beating down in droves. With his flight abruptly cancelled, he was forced to rent a car for his trip back home. He had a long stretch of meetings and therapy sessions he was set to report to the following day, and his attendance was non-negotiable. He found himself at a middle-of-nowhere car rental place, huddled in a corner trying to stay dry, all the while exhausted and aching for the refuge of his bed. He then drove five hours home with his windshield wipers on full blast, his wheels wrestling with the storm the entire way.
Rather than allow his followers to assume that his trip had been as glamorous as most would have conveyed to their social media audiences, he documented the reality of it on Instagram. “What people often forget is that every great achievement requires a sacrifice as well as less desirable moments. I wanted to show the reality of what a business trip is often like for me,” says Gilliland. “Social media gives us these ideas of fancy views and dinners and flights, but what about the empty hotel rooms and the lack of sleep and the frustrating delays? I think we all need to get honest with ourselves and each other.”
From Gilliland’s vantage point, he is convinced that success by society’s metric is oftentimes a lonely and unfulfilling journey, and not a byway one should expect to serve as an escape from being human. In other words, he is saying we must not assume that the accumulation of riches or the realization of our most towering aspirations will serve as an antidote for the things that most tug at our attention—especially when the shades are drawn and the lights are dim. “I have recently been working through therapy sessions with a gentleman who, by almost anyone’s measure, has been incredibly successful,” he says. “But the other day he looked at me and said, ‘You know? Who is going to feel sorry for me? Who do I talk to about my problems? People think I have everything.’”
Having counseled a long list of highly prestigious clients—from Hollywood celebrities to billionaire entrepreneurs, Gilliland is always quick to correct them when they gloss over their struggles with statements like, “Well, all of this may be going on, but it’s a great problem to have…” because he says we have to accept that what feels like a problem will be experienced as a problem, and will then lead to further problems. “Let’s say you love playing music and you work hard and achieve success doing that. Everyone thinks you’re lucky, but the truth is every minute of your day is now scheduled by someone else and you’re doing all kinds of stuff that you don’t like,” says Gilliland. “Then you may feel you have lost your life in the process of following your dream. And when humans start feeling like that, they start making bad decisions. People will then look at them and say, ‘Oh, wow, they had it all…’”
This is the part where Gilliland says we have to get “clear about what we hate.” Oftentimes we think we loathe our workplace or resent our role as a leader, when in reality we hate the way we have gone about managing our lives. We often misdirect our frustrations because we are exhausted from trying to be too many things for too many people. For example, one may have an enviable job with an impressive salary, but if they’re also balancing graduate school and a new baby, they may unleash their wrath toward an aspect of their lives that isn’t the culprit at all. “You may think it’s the job wearing you out, or the people on social media wearing you out, or that spouse wearing you out, but really it’s your relationship with those things, or even your expectations that those things failed to meet. It’s almost always user error,” he says. “But that’s a powerful realization to have because you get to alter how you behave as a user of those things.”
An area of research that has long fascinated Gilliland over the span of his two-decade career is human behavior change. Through this study, he concluded that fear tactics are mostly ineffective, and even the most potent facts often fail to motivate us. So, what then, does motivate humans to enact change? The most powerful catalyst for transformation, he swears, is the information we are forced to see about ourselves. “Self-monitoring is one of the things I have people do all of the time when they are struggling with a certain behavior or habit. If you want to change something about your life, you’ve simply got to face the truth of your actions—of where your money is going, of how much you’re glued to your phone, of how you’re spending your time,” says Gilliland. He adds: “Awareness leads to self-reflection, which leads to lasting change, which can then lead to a whole new life—maybe even one that feels successful in all areas.”