Centred in the eye of the storm

By Rosie Walford

You can learn to be more flexible and accommodating so when the winds of change strike, you're better prepared to face it.

Being flexible and embracing life's changing circumstances can build resilience and courage to be able to face difficulties big or small. Photo / Thinkstock
Being flexible and embracing life's changing circumstances can build resilience and courage to be able to face difficulties big or small. Photo / Thinkstock

However comfortable and beautiful our lives, fate has a pesky habit of throwing us curveballs. In the face of a financial reversal, an alarming illness or a sudden disappointment, will we crumble, or turn out to be one of those people who triumphs in adversity, flexing admirably with the winds of change?

How come some people take turmoil as a time for reinvention, while others clench up, trying to control everything in an overwhelmed panic? Though nobody has taught us this useful stuff at school, there are certain mental habits associated with resilience, and the good news is that we can learn them.

Our capacity to adapt - and the joy we get from living - ultimately depends on how we filter and interpret experiences. When chaos reigns, resilient people put their attention where it matters, and move with changing circumstance. Crumblier people batten down, resisting change.

I'm not focusing here on those times when we are torn between competing demands.

That chaos is the result of overcommitment. Embracing the truth of a few priority roles is enough to achieve radical simplification of our lives.

But happenings like redundancy, the death of a loved one, or a closed motorway are beyond our control. No amount of prudence, coaching or prioritisation will prevent these bombshells and the chaos they bring.

If we want to find our adaptability when a psychological meteorite hits, we need to replace neurotic mental chatter with three functional patterns of thought: trust in our strengths, surrender to changing circumstance, and openness to different goals - then we'll be thinking as resilient people do.

Richard Logan, who has researched survivors of physical ordeals like avalanches and concentration camps, found that they don't doubt their own resources, their ability to determine their fate. The less hardy of us, by contrast, get ambushed by a wave of personal doubts.

Once, when a client cancelled my biggest consulting project, the Voice of Doom invaded my mind. "I'll never get a project that good again" it boomed. "My work is no longer relevant" it whispered. "I'll end up on the street."

External triggers may be challenging, but actually it's internal fears like these which spiral us into panic. In touch with them, we make poor decisions and communicate with desperation - and we know it.

In such moments, we need to stop identifying with the Voice of Doom, and connect, like survivors do, with our strengths. Amazingly, just recalling a moment when you were confident and knew what to do can rapidly remind you of personal powers and a sense of centredness that's yours to draw upon.

We also need to verify those noxious fears. With my coaching clients, I've witnessed, repeatedly, that the awful scenarios predicted by the Voice of Doom are, 80 per cent of the time, generalisations or lies. When we verify those silent fears, the truth is often much more specific, and pointing towards new solutions.

When my big project folded, for example, it wasn't absolutely true that my work was irrelevant. What was true was that certain industries really needed my work (even though for that one company it was expendable). The new truth encouraged me to name those promising sectors ...which set me on a fruitful path.

The second factor in Logan's survivor research is blindingly simple: People who transform stress into enjoyable challenges spend very little time thinking about themselves. Of course, when our psychic energy is absorbed by inward concerns, we can't focus attention on the outside world. When attention is alert and processing information from our surroundings, we may spot opportunities. The more we participate in the system, the more we're likely to understand its properties and find ways to adapt.

Resilience is defined as "the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise itself while undergoing change". But theory flies out the window in catastrophe, and we erect walls around remaining priorities, defending ourselves from further onslaughts of fate.

Paradoxically, accepting that our goals may have to be subordinated to greater forces, playing to different rules than we'd prefer, is the hallmark of a strong resilient person.

People who ride the waves of change surrender, releasing old agendas and plans so they can meet new impulses with spontaneous intelligence. They let go of holding everything together in secure, predictable ways.

If we drop old goals and ask "what else do I wish for?" and "how can I express this problem as an opportunity?" we start to function harmoniously in a changing world, spotting new openings we've always wanted to pursue. As we release control, we open up to transformational pathways instead.

I'm not saying it's easy. The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a rare gift. If we can bend and innovate with changing times we'll be seen to have courage - and that's the human quality that is most commonly admired.

- NZ Herald

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