Emotional adaptability is the ability to respond to changing circumstances and events without being unduly shaken by these changes. It’s a Balancer characteristic and a key component of resilience. Those of us who are emotionally adaptable can bend with the wind, like saplings. Those of us who are less adaptable are likely to strain and crack as we struggle to maintain equilibrium.
Emotional adaptability varies from person to person and can also be impacted by life events. Most of us are less emotionally adaptable when we are under constant or unusual stress. Those of us raised in a rigid environment, with fixed ideas of how we or the world works, may also be less adaptable. Being attached to expectations of ourselves, others, or how things ought to be also limits emotional adaptability.
The good news is that there are many ways to become more adept at responding to change.
Some of the best strategies for enhancing emotional adaptability include practices that promote an accepting attitude, increase compassion and self-compassion, and enable forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Creative activities and an experimental attitude are also helpful in increasing our adaptability to change.
Although chronic stress, adversity, and other actions of the UnBalancer can sometimes make us more emotionally rigid, for many of us the most persistent obstacle to emotional adaptability is difficulty with accepting things as they are.
When we don’t accept how things really are, we live in a false reality that we must constantly defend against the evidence. We may become preoccupied with a hypothetical future, worried that things won’t turn out the way we hope, or stuck in the past, consumed by resentments over things not turning out as we wanted them to.
When we’re struggling to defend this alternate reality, we have fewer resources to deal with what’s actually at hand. We’re too busy rebuilding our imagined reality to go with the flow, respond with compassion, or see the humor in our own situation.
In the absence of acceptance, there can be little or no forward movement. We grow older, and the external circumstances of our lives still change, but we can’t embrace them. As the Talking Heads put it, inside our heads it’s “the same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”
Buddhist teacher Tara Brach recommends what she calls Radical Acceptance as a way to open ourselves to present reality. Radical acceptance means fully accepting our situations, feelings, limitations, and strengths. Radical acceptance is a prerequisite to meaningful change. As pioneering psychologist Carl Rogers observed, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Tara Brach adds, “When we can meet our experience with Radical Acceptance, we discover the wholeness, wisdom and love that are our deepest nature.”
When we accept things as they are, we don’t have to struggle against their reality. We can radically accept our bodies, our pasts, our peers, our partners, our children, and the strengths and limitations of our own personalities, and then we can choose to try to change what can be changed, and to embrace what cannot.
Radical acceptance is a balm for difficult emotions such as envy, resentment, and frustration. We accept our present circumstances and what has led up to them, and we understand that railing against them won’t change anything. Radical acceptance is also an antidote to the lingering pain of misfortune. When we radically accept our losses, we are more open to the possible gains that may come from them. Then we can move on, recovered.
Radical acceptance can be as complex as accepting a traumatic loss or catastrophic event, or as simple as accepting the weather.
An example: I’ve lived in the U.S. Northeast most of my life. Here, the winters can be harsh. I have never liked cold weather or snow, and I’ve never been drawn to winter sports. Each year, as the days shorten and the nights grow longer, I have felt a sense of dread as winter approaches and a great sense of relief when I finally put away the snow shovel and hang up my winter coat. But this past winter just was. Autumn flowed into winter as it always does, and this time I was fine with it.
The weather acceptance switch flipped the previous summer during a meeting of the Buddhist study group I belong to. On an extraordinarily hot and humid evening, as we began our walking meditation, I was struggling with the discomfort of my shirt sticking to my back and the sweat beading on my forehead. Then our teacher said, “This is heat.” As we walked in silence, I pondered his observation, feeling into the reality of the present moment, and something shifted. The rest of that evening, and for all the other hot days that summer, heat was simply heat, not something to be dreaded or avoided. When the cold set in this winter, I thought, “This is cold.” When the snow fell, “This is snow.” When it melted, “This is Spring.” And as the summer heat approaches again, I remember, “This is heat.”
When we radically accept something, we don’t judge it. We don’t get angry, we don’t try to fight it, and we don’t resent it. We simply recognize that this is how it is, freeing up all the energy we might otherwise have expended on judging, fighting, anger, or resentment. Then we can take in, with renewed openness, whatever comes our way.
For more on Radical Acceptance, see Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.
Compassion and Self-Compassion
Like Radical Acceptance, developing a compassionate attitude toward ourselves and others promotes emotional adaptability and increases responsiveness to our present reality.
Self-compassion is a term coined by psychologist Kristin Neff to describe extending to yourself the compassion you would feel for a good friend or someone you love.
Dr. Neff’s description of compassion and self-compassion is as eloquent and complete as any I have seen. “Having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others,” she writes. “Think about what the experience of compassion feels like. First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to ‘suffer with’). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. ‘There but for fortune go I.’
“Self-compassion,” she continues, “involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, you stop to tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now, how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?’”
Self-compassion is one of the most powerful tools for reducing critical self-talk. When we are compassionate toward ourselves, we don’t give ourselves a hard time and we don’t push our vulnerable feelings aside and “suck it up.” Instead, we treat our difficult emotions as if they were a baby crying inside us and do whatever we need in order to attend to it.
Practicing self-compassion helps us become more responsive not only to our own needs, but also to the needs of others. Released from the tyranny of our inner critics, we become more able to blossom into our full selves and, ironically, less self-centered and more compassionate toward others. We have more of ourselves to give away.
Extending compassion to others also enhances our emotional adaptability. Giving to others lets us become our best selves, even when we feel depleted. This principle underlies healing practices in many indigenous cultures, where the shaman chooses a sickly boy to become his apprentice. The boy becomes strong through healing his people, but he must continue to heal others in order to stay healthy himself.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I have found this healing/healer link also to be true. Regardless of what is going on in my life, when I get to my office and put on my imaginary “therapist jacket,” I become my best self, doing what I can to attend to the needs of my clients. Because I have been that best self all day, by evening the troubles of the morning have become smaller and more manageable. And the next day, I often awaken a little more emotionally adaptable, not only to my clients, but also to myself.
For more on self-compassion, including a quick test of your level of self-compassion, see Kristin Neff’s site self-compassion.org.
What to do:
- Radically accept. The most essential step to adapting to change is to accept the change itself and your own responses to it. Accept who you are and your present circumstances and free up the energy that might otherwise be exhausted through struggling against reality. See Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha to more fully explore Radical Acceptance as a way of life.
- Be compassionate and self-compassionate. Treat yourself with the compassion you would have for a dear friend and you will quiet your inner critic and also find yourself more able to respond authentically to change and to the needs of others. See Kristin Neff’s website self-compassion.org for more on self-compassion, and take her quick test to check out your own self-compassion level.
NEXT: Part II, Forgiveness and Self-Forgiveness
The Under Toad and the UnBalancer
The Balancer/ReBalancer Tag Team
A Mini-Lesson on Mini Self-Care
Gyroscopes and Personal Flywheels
Hanging in the Balance
Balancing the Books
How to Design an Experiment
Build Your Resilience in 6 Steps
How to Rebalance Your Brain in 3 Easy Steps
How to Boost Connections and Support
Handling Change, Part I: Radical Acceptance and Self-Compassion
NOTE: Paths to Wholeness is now available at the following Boston-area bookstores and libraries:
Cabot Street Books & Cards, 272 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA 01915
The Bookshop, 40 West Street, Beverly Farms, MA 01915
Boston Public Library (main branch)
Brookline Public Library (main branch)
NOBLE Public Libraries (Beverly Farms and Salem)
MVLC Public Libraries (Hamilton-Wenham)
Please let me know if you find it in other locations!
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)