Charleston: A Lesson in Adaptation

20130327-172038.jpgI’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.


Rebuilding: After Deconstruction

In January of last year I became pretty ill with an unexplained set of symptoms. My immune system was compromised and I was unable to function at my normal level. I was in and out of work, in bed a lot, and had no clear diagnosis to decide on a course of treatment. I also had a vague set of symptoms including chronic fatigue, nausea, and nerve pain. It took several months of doctor’s visits and trial and error to find out I was intolerant to a lot of different foods.

Over the course of the next few months I began avoiding those foods and introducing new ones that would strengthen my immune system and heal my body. As I began to feel better, there were moments where I felt better than I ever had before. I was startled to know that my previous baseline meant that I had actually been sick for a very long time. Had my body not crashed, I never would’ve realized how sick I had become, because I didn’t know anything else.

This experience provided a rich metaphor for the journey of deconstruction to rebuilding. It often takes a painful, and dramatic, deconstruction process, one filled with confusion, doubt, questioning, and fear to help us see ourselves as we really are, without thinly veiled disguises. Sometimes, it takes us being incapacitated, physically or emotionally, to understand where we’re really at in our lives.

It takes that realization, at in intellectual and emotional level, to motivate us to discover the rebuilding process. However, our ability to rebuild is directly proportionate to our awareness of what has happened to us. In my sickness, it took getting an accurate diagnosis to be able to figure out how to heal my body. In counseling, that accurate “diagnosis” of ourselves is complicated by the fact that it’s painful when we’re honest with ourselves and others about what’s going on. But it takes that kind of honesty to move towards rebuilding.

Rebuilding also requires the courage to take risks, and the willingness to be present with an enormous amount of emotional tension while we take those risks. Rebuilding may mean making dramatic life changes, like the one I had to make last year (eliminating a majority of foods in my diet). Other dramatic life changes could be switching jobs, going back to school, telling a loved one something so honest that it may create a rift.

This rebuilding process is not for the faint of heart. It’s a process that conjures up fears of inadequacy, failure, and worthlessness to name a few. In rebuilding we have to face these demons often and over again to be able to conquer them.

This type of rebuilding is one that requires the deepest level of emotional investment, the courage to take those risks, and the support to be able to weather the storms. The support that we choose in this process is vital to how well we come out of it on the other side.

For those of you who are experiencing deconstruction, or, “the dark night of the soul”, who and what have you chosen to walk alongside you through that process? Be intentional about that, because on the other side, the narrative you create for that experience will be influenced by who has cared for you.

Under Deconstruction

20130314-133608.jpgIn our more broken moments, the veiled hours hidden from view, we find pale representations of ourselves. We feel thin and worn with the constant grating of life’s demands. With that veil momentarily lifted, we have a unique opportunity to see ourselves as unencumbered humanity.

This humanness is terrifying to all of us. So terrifying that we cloak it in anything and everything we can find to avoid it. We cloak it in image, humor, accommodation, triviality. If we face who we are, who we are without props, we’re terrified that we will be as thin as we feel. We’re ashamed of how little we have to offer, and we’re afraid that what we do offer will be despised.

If we are as thin as we feel, no one will love us, accept us, desire us, or stay. We’ll be left alone, desperate for a resonant voice to soothe us through.

We may think this is the end. But it’s merely the beginning. This is how the process of deconstruction begins. A process where we unpack our formerly held views about life, love, relationships. This is the beginning of a journey towards grace, humility, and freedom. Are you curious about what comes next?

The Many Layers of Grief

20130311-194328.jpgI’ve walked alongside many clients through the loss of loved ones. I’ve sat with them as they wept, questioned, doubted, feared, and accepted. I’ve walked alongside many more as they have grieved other losses, losses that are more subtle, but very debilitating.

Grief is often viewed in very limited terms. People contend that it’s defined by a “significant” loss of a family member or friend. In each loss, however, there are a thousand smaller losses. In each experience of grief a thousand ways that the pieces of that loss converge and develop into a significant process.

Some of those layers include the loss of unmet expectations or dreams, when we expect our marriage to go a certain way and we wake up out of a fog to find it a thin representation of our robust hopes. We can experience the loss of time, recognizing that what we wanted to accomplish has eluded our grasp, and left us disillusioned to the reality before us. Others feel the acute sting of lost health, where our hope of good physical, emotional, and spiritual health is disrupted by the reality of sickness, emotional pain, or spiritual numbness.

Grief is an infinitely more complex process than we often realize. And its a process that we all face daily, in some form or another. These layers of grief can derail us if we’re unaware of their formation and the magnitude and sway they hold in our lives. What are the layers of grief you’re facing today? How do they affect you?

When understood well, these losses can walk us through a process of evaluating and understanding ourselves. They can have the impact of highlighting how we’re lost, and where we could go to experience transformation. They can be gentle guides, rather than startling disruptions.

My own losses have guided me along, at times gently, and other times more sharply. I expected that my life would look very different than it does today. I expected my work, my family, my health, and my spiritual life would all have a different type of vibrancy. I couldn’t have anticipated the twists and turns my life would take. What I do know is that the more I surrender to those changes, the more freedom I have to come through them well, and to appreciate the vibrancy that is currently there. I hope you are able to experience that same freedom. I invite you to dialogue with me, share your own stories, or consider what the many layers of grief are teaching you today.

Know Thyself

20130301-193041.jpgA few weeks ago, I facilitated a talk on the Harrison Assessment with a group of business professionals. This assessment is a powerful tool that helps individuals and businesses develop a framework and common language to understand themselves or their employees better.

This is no ordinary framework. It’s based on Jungian theory of opposite forces. This is the work of psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, who created an approach to understanding behavior based on seemingly paradoxical traits that are actually complimentary.

The idea behind this theory is pairing certain traits (e.g. frank and diplomatic). The ultimate goal is to achieve a balance that allows seemingly opposite, or paradoxical, traits to remain in tension. An individual who is both frank and diplomatic can get his or her point across clearly while not offending others. It is, so to speak, a way to blend or enhance the best aspects of each trait, thereby creating a balanced, grounded personality.

What’s interesting about this approach is what happens when these traits are out of balance. If an individual focuses on diplomacy and rejects frankness, that person will end up being overly permissive. In paradox theory, what then results is that under stress that individual will flip to the trait he or she has rejected, in an extreme fashion. So, in this example, that person will move from being overly permissive to being harsh.

The theory proposes that there is a psychological rigidity that develops when we over-emphasize one of these complimentary traits while rejecting the other. It leads to an inability to be flexible, and results in us showcasing the very trait we reject.

While this explanation is very technical, it presents a great metaphor for other areas of interpersonal development. Two takeaways from this approach: 1. Flexibility and openness are essential to growth and development. 2. When we reject certain traits within ourselves, under stress, those traits end up defining our actions.

It’s far better to be mindful of and use our traits well, then to reject them and have them rule over us. Consider, have you ever seen that play out under stress? Have you ever found yourself acting out the very personality trait that you dislike? I know I have. And understanding where that’s coming from has been instrumental in my own self-awareness to, ultimately, help me love others more authentically.

For more information on the Harrison, check out their website: