I’m on a mini-vacation this week in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s one of my favorite places due to the architecture and urban life juxtaposed with southern charm and relaxing beaches. The only problem is, I expected it to be much warmer. I had planned on a couple days of touring the city, followed by some beach time. When I walked out of the hotel this morning it was 45 degrees and I was layering jackets, coat, and gloves and still freezing cold. I quickly realized that I would have to shift my agenda to warmer, indoor activities. There was a period of child-like, internal struggle as I fought the idea that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted.
This experience got me to thinking about the daily struggle of managing expectations. Children have a very difficult time with transition, and when things don’t go their way or plans change, they often have meltdowns that communicate their internal protest. As adults we still experience remnants of that desire to protest. We fight the twists and turns of life that evade our carefully protected agendas. We often want to act out the way we did as children.
At times like this, it’s important to remember that adapting to change is an art form. It’s not a skill that’s readily available to most of us. It requires a good deal of effort, finesse, and presence of mind, to be able to move steadily through the unexpected transitions of life. As I calmed myself down this morning, I was able to assess the situation more clearly and evaluate solutions to my perceived “problem”. So here’s some thoughts about how to cultivate the ability to adapt to change.
First of all, the art of adaptation requires an awareness of our emotional responses to the changes that are occurring. If you notice yourself reacting to change, and are surprised by the intensity of your response, ask yourself: What am I upset about right now? What is this response in reaction to? Is this response proportionate to the situation I’m in? The more we are awakened to our emotional state, the better equipped we are to use that as a cue to understanding our reactive states. This self-awareness also acts as a gauge for when we are reacting in the first place. Reactive responses are very different from grounded, emotional responses. They are impulsive, quick, based on previous experiences, and can be destructive. They are counter-productive to adaptation.
After assessing our reactive responses, it’s important to get perspective on the situation. Reactive states exaggerate the severity of the struggle in our minds. These states are called “catastrophizing” and only serve to extend our temper tantrums. As we react, our perspective diminishes and we become further consumed with the intensity of our experience. As the situation becomes bigger and bigger in our minds, we get overwhelmed and either explode or shut down. Rather than engaging in this spiraling cycle of reaction, it’s imperative that we take a step back, and evaluate what we’re actually facing. We need to breathe deeply and ask ourselves: Will this matter to me in an hour, day, or week? Chances are, even if it does matter to us a week from now, we will have found a way to circumvent the struggle and the outburst will be diminished in our minds. At this point, we can ask others to help us gain perspective, take a break from thinking about the issue and address it later, or simply breathe and risk facing the experience that we can’t control.
Finally, as we face this challenge, it’s important to develop a well-versed curiosity. I can’t over-emphasize how adaptive curiosity is. The art of being inquisitive requires a receptivity that naturally leads to grounded responding. Be curious about what interesting opportunities could come out of your changing plans. Maybe you’ll end up in an adventure you never expected, or learn about a character trait you have that wouldn’t have shown itself under normal circumstances. Maybe you’ll meet someone new, or maybe you’ll simply be surprised at your ability to adapt. Either way, facing unexpected change fine tunes our problem solving skills and can be beneficial at an emotional and neurological level, if we allow it.
After I came to terms with my changing agenda today, I began to awaken to the possibility of new and unexpected opportunities. To get out of the cold I ducked into a little cafe with all of the southern charm I had come to Charleston for. This was an unexpected twist, a cool place I never would’ve found had I gone along with my agenda. This place became an unforgettable, little reminder of the contentment that can come with flexibility and adaptation to change.