Resilience Trait #2
Flexibility and Adaptability
This article is an excerpt from The Top 10 Traits of Highly Resilient People: Real Life Stories of Resilience Show You How to Build a Stress Resistant Personality, published with permission from the publisher.
In the previous article, we looked at the number one trait of highly resilient people — Insight. Having the self-awareness to recognize our own triggers empowers us to avoid the situations that will cause us undue stress, or at least to be better prepared for them.
Throughout the ages, wise people have been aware of the traits of resilience. Two and a half centuries ago, Socrates’ only teaching was to ‘know thyself’, but Socrates also demonstrated the importance of the number two trait of highly resilient people — Flexibility.
In Plato’s Republic (380 BC), we find Socrates getting stuck into deep discussions about what makes a good person, different types of government and the qualities of leadership. Time and again, as those around him try to answer these questions with carefully worded definitions, Socrates uses his own distinctive process of questioning to reveal the flaws in their arguments. At every turn, they are forced to recognize that what might be true in one circumstance cannot be generalized to all other possible scenarios. Every situation is different, and we need to be flexible in our approach.
Socrates’ determination to seek truth rather than settling for a black and white perspective of the world eventually led to his death. We are hardwired to generalize and to create default rules of thumb that we can apply to situations without too much thought. This is a great mechanism for allowing us to make quick decisions and conserve mental energy for more demanding tasks. Unfortunately, however, it can also lead to a rigid mindset that prevents us from seeing situations from other perspectives.
The more fixed our mindset is, the more we will struggle to cope with aspects of reality that we can neither accept nor change, and this leads to increased stress and eventually the possibility of burnout. We have to learn to strike a balance between our expectations of how the world should be and the way it is at any given moment. We can’t force any person or situation to change to suit our needs, but we can change to adapt to our world.
Philosopher, and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr captures this spirit of flexibility in his famous ‘Serenity prayer’:
‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Accepting the things that we cannot change is the key to dealing with the challenges that life throws at us. It stops us falling into the trap of crying over spilt milk and allows us to focus our mental energy on seeking the best outcome for any given situation — adaptability. Acceptance leads to flexibility. Being flexible is the first step to figuring out how to deal with adversity.
The Taoist teaching of impermanence also steers us away from becoming attached to fixed ideas. Paradoxically, according to Taoism, the only certainty is change. This concept is captured in the Taoist symbol, the taijitu or ‘yin-yang’ sign, which illustrates the constant interplay between light and dark. The presence of a small white circle in the black half of the symbol and a small black circle in the white half shows how the universe is in a constant state of flux between absolutes. We don’t live in a black and white world. Reality is a constantly changing shade of grey, and the more we embrace it just as it is right now, the easier it is to adapt to it.
Check out the interesting article on next trait Resilience Trait 3: Persistence
According to research carried out by Mohammed Al-Mosalwi and Tom Johnson and reported in their paper, In an Absolute State: Elevated Use of Absolutist Words Is a Marker Specific to Anxiety, Depression, and Suicidal Ideation (Clinical Psychological Science, January 2018), depressed people are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ words such as ‘always’, ‘nothing’ and ‘completely’. These words reflect a more fixed, rigid perspective on life, don’t they? They suggest a world where everything follows a plan, but life’s not like that. When was the last time life pitched you a curveball?
Another notable finding from the Al-Mosalwi and Johnson study is that depressed people are more likely to use first-person pronouns such as ‘me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I’, which suggests that they are more self-preoccupied than people in general. If we only ever consider ourselves in any situation — focusing on how we feel about things, how we think the world should be, and what we want to happen —we become more entrenched in our own single-minded perspective. That makes us less flexible, which in turn will mean we are more unwilling to adapt and less capable of it.
Remember, truth can look different depending on our perspective. What can look like number nine to one person could be a six to another. Paying attention to others, finding out how others see the world, broadens our own perspective and makes us more open minded. Looking at things from more than one perspective is one of the magic ingredients of creativity, which is one of the keys to adaptability.
Being adaptable makes us more agile and better able to adjust our plans to meet changes in the world around us. Sometimes, the most unlikely plan is the one that gets us where we need to be. Sometimes, it’s the plan that seems to break all the rules that delivers the best outcome. Thinking creatively lets us consider more options.
One personal story in the book relating to the importance of being flexible and adaptable, is written by a man who started out as a performing artist on Broadway. Bruce Cryer is a true Renaissance man who has been thriving into a diverse range of careers since his days in musical theatre. He shows us how being flexible not only enabled him to overcome life-threatening illnesses but to be able to adapt and thrive, making a full recovery while discovering things about himself along the way.
In Bruce’s opinion, there are four key elements of human resilience — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual — and these all need to be nurtured equally for all-round health and wellbeing. That means we have to be flexible physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Bruce also talks about the importance of creativity as a factor of resilience. He believes that everyone is creative, even if they are not artistic, and he shares techniques we can all practice to reconnect with our own creativity.
Watch the interview with Bruce and Dr. Andrea here.
Our next author, Eric Gerson, is almost the perfect embodiment of flexibility and adaptability. His rock-solid faith in himself, complete refusal to dwell on the past or the future, and strong awareness of what his heart was telling him, allowed him to embrace a lifestyle that many would consider foolhardy.
Eric’s story is a prime example of having the wisdom to know when to accept things we can’t change and when to change the things we can. His life has been no bed of roses, but as he puts it, he never saw challenges as things to be overcome or mountains to be climbed — they were cones to be navigated around.
Watch the interview with Eric and Dr. Andrea here.
Get your copy of the book today and start building your stress-resistant personality.