Adaptability: From Surviving to Thriving

Adaptability is often listed as a key trait of the highly resilient, and that makes sense because your ability to quickly and effectively respond to change and adversity helps to achieve more positive outcomes.

Most of us like to think of ourselves as being reasonably open and able to manage the occasional unexpected detour, but it’s important to recognize that not all change is created equal.

For example, chances are you’re probably pretty flexible when it comes to making small adjustments in your day-to-day life.

The restaurant is out of the item you order, so you pick something else on the menu, there’s a street crew working on the road you normally use for work commutes, so you take a detour.

Maybe your boss gifts you with a major rush assignment Friday afternoon when you have plans for the weekend. You grumble, maybe spend a little quality time on the pity pot, but you adjust.

Occasionally we find ourselves facing situations that require a whole different level of skills and behaviors; loss of a cherished career, recovery from an injury or illness, conflict in an important relationship, or assuming the role of caretaker for a parent.

The greater the disruption the more you will benefit from the ability to quickly and effectively adapt and adjust to new circumstances.  

But like all virtues, adaptability has its dark side.

Stuck in Survival Mode

It is both a blessing and a curse that we humans have the inherent capacity to become used to conditions of almost any kind.

The ability to cope is important. You are effectively giving yourself the space you need to stay present enough to do what you must do to survive.

The problem is that many people end up staying in survival mode because they don’t know there is anything else so they feel good about achieving any improvement over the past.

In time even the most toxic relationships and miserable living conditions can begin to feel both normal and natural.

This is the dark side of adaptability.

Habitually putting the wants and needs of others first, and living without healthy personal boundaries becomes so commonplace that to even consider change elicits feelings of guilt and shame.

We avoid setting goals and pursuing dreams, telling ourselves that we should be grateful for what we have, or spend a large portion of our lives collecting paychecks for unfulfilling jobs.

Millions of people have effectively learned to adapt to a variety of dysfunctional relationships — sometimes so thoroughly that they don’t even realize they are in them.

You make concessions until you are no longer sure what really matters or who is right. It becomes easy to lose yourself, to lose sight of the difference between making a compromise out of love for someone and allowing yourself to be devalued and mistreated.

What this means is that it is easy to be in an abusive situation without even realizing it, because you’ve adapted.

You can get used to almost anything in life, but that doesn’t mean you should.

You’ve lived in survival mode long enough, now it’s time to thrive. The habits and behaviors you relied on to cope will no longer serve you when it’s time to create a stronger more resilient life.


Striving to Thrive

Despite the potential dark side of adaptability, I love this quality.

It is our ability to adapt that allows us to rise above life’s inevitable challenges and keep moving forward … even when the unthinkable happens.

So, then how do we avoid the trap of getting stuck in survival mode?

The key is to become clear about who you are (or want to be) and the kind of life you want to live, then do the work to create a path by making deliberate choices that will lead you in that direction.

Yes, there will be unexpected events and detours, and your priorities will naturally change at different stages in your life. But who you are, your core values, and what you stand for, will continue to guide you.

This is how you master the art of Resilient Living.

Create a Vision for Your Life

As the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter what path you take.

Without becoming clear about the life you want to build for yourself it becomes way too easy to be carried along by the winds of fate and the influence of other people until one day you wake up in a life that you never intended or even like all that much.

Worse, you’re suddenly faced with the harsh reality that time is slipping away and you haven’t achieved a fraction of the dreams you once held so dear.

It happens so often we even have a name for it, “midlife crisis.”

Creating a vision for your life is simply taking the time to clarify your values and highest life priorities, who you want to be, what you want to stand for, and the significant experiences and accomplishments you are aiming for in your lifetime.

It serves as a roadmap to help you make important decisions and becomes your reason to keep moving forward rather than allowing yourself to get stuck in survival mode.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I cannot stress strongly enough that it is really, really important to get out of your comfort zone!

Not just once in a while but every chance you get. 

Every cell in your body and brain is constantly working to maintain a sense of comfort and stability which is just one reason why we find it so easy to settle into habits and so hard to break them.

The only way for you to grow is to keep nudging your comfort zone to force your mind and body to adapt to new norms.

It’s like exercising a muscle. As you continue to work a muscle it adapts to increasing levels of strength. And, when you stop exercising the muscle, it begins to return to the former weaker state. 

The more comfortable you become with challenging yourself and the rewards of growth, the less likely you will be to settle for living a life that is simply good enough.

Embrace Hopeful Optimism

I admit it, I made the term “hopeful optimism” up, but bear with me for a moment and you’ll see why the concept makes sense.

Optimism and hope are both concerned with a positive future orientation and both assume that good things will generally occur in one’s life.

The difference is that optimism is an attitude and expectation that things will go well, while hope is active and fuels momentum.

From a psychologist’s perspective, being hopeful is regarded as more powerful.

So, a hopeful optimist believes that positive thinking matters, but that they will succeed through effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies.

More importantly, they redefine failure as a temporary detour so that when one plan hits a speed bump, it simply means a new strategy or direction is required.

Be Willing to Experiment

This is one of my all-time favorite strategies to avoid falling prey to limited thinking, but to better illustrate it I’m going to ask you to use your imagination.

Picture a scientist trying to solve a problem. She conducts an experiment that doesn’t achieve the result she was seeking.

Rather than consider it a failure, she figures out what didn’t work, makes a few adjustments, and gives it another try.

This process may be repeated dozens, if not hundreds of times, but with each trial, the scientist increases her knowledge and gets closer to finding the solution she seeks.

The point is that to tap into the power of experimentation you need to challenge your preconceived limitations (we all have them) and shift your thinking from all or nothing to be willing to explore different approaches to problem-solving and the pursuit of important goals.

What matters the most in this process is how you deal with the consequences of each effort.

If you can learn from your mistakes, experiment with alternative solutions, and share newfound knowledge, then you’ll not only have increased your capacity for adaptability, you’ll have gained some of the most valuable lessons of your life.

Accept Accountability

Accountability is accepting that while you may not be responsible for events and circumstances outside of your control, or the behavior or actions of other people, you are responsible for the way you choose to respond to these things, and the effect they have on other people.

Embracing accountability is never more challenging or important than when you’re going through a difficult transition period in your life.

It fosters honesty, commitment, compassion, integrity, and it builds deeper, more fulfilling relationships.

In other words, accountability is the true sign that you have become the driver in your life journey.

The moment you no longer experience fear or obstacles in your life then you had better get on your hands and knees and pray for some. Because the only people who don’t experience fear and obstacles are those who are buried 6 feet underground!

~Norman Vincent Peale

Face Your Fears

Let’s be honest, each time you find yourself blindsided by unexpected change, attempt something you have never done before or have to make a difficult decision you can expect to experience fear.

What if instead of avoiding the source of your fear(s) you lean into them?

Better yet, what if instead of going just far enough to make your fears manageable, you were to turn them into a personal challenge to stretch yourself?

What might you discover about who you are and what you are truly capable of?

Yes, this means taking risks, and there will be discomfort and some uncertainty, but the truth is we seldom do anything to the absolute best of our ability, we do it only to the extent of our willingness.

The good news is that each time you stand up for yourself you’ll grow a little stronger.

Every time you choose to confront instead of avoiding fear or accept responsibility, you’ll grow a little more confident and a little more resilient to life’s challenges.

Where to Begin

To gradually increase your adaptability in a healthy, growth-oriented way begin by intentionally stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone just a little every single day.

You can start with simple steps like questioning your perspective about things, learn a new skill or sport. 

I am amazed at how many people can’t bring themselves to eat alone in a restaurant. Give it a try! Choose a casual restaurant and go for lunch so it will be more casual. Bring a book if it will make you more comfortable, but challenge yourself to look around and enjoy the experience. 

Are there circumstances or toxic relationships you’ve avoided dealing with because the thought of setting personal boundaries scares you silly. Ridding your life of stress-inducing tolerations is a great goal to work toward!

Start small, set a goal, and then practice, and practice some more.

The key is to be consistent and to keep going until you feel good about the results.

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