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Flexibility is Mandatory

We don't mean THAT kind of flexible...but it's clear that we can no longer be rigid in our way of thinking.

Well, here we go again in Southern California. After 119 days, we’re pretty much back where we started in March. I think there’s a similar line in the movie, Jurassic Park, where the characters work really hard to get out of the car a dinosaur is attacking, only to end up right back in the car. Shortages on PPE, testing equipment and hospital beds. And now we’re about to be shut down again. I know many other states in this country are in the same boat. And of course, countries around the world are grappling with many of the same issues we are, which aren’t just health-related, but major economic challenges. Israeli’s are protesting over their government’s virus response as unemployment hits 20%. 1.9 million have tested positive in Brazil, landing them in the 2nd biggest outbreak in the world behind the U.S. And just like here, their low-income and indigenous people are the most impacted. Columbia’s largest cities are going back on lockdown. A new study shows Mexico’s virus response has plunged 16 million people into poverty. Caracas, Venezuela is back in lockdown due to rising numbers. And on and on.

I felt the collective punch to the gut earlier this week when LA County announced that children will not be returning to school in August, but instead all learning will be remote. I don’t have children at home anymore, but the impact of such a decision is going to be tremendous, and again, it won’t just be here in Los Angeles. While I think we all recognize that kids need to return to school for learning purposes, socialization and to ease the stress on parents so that they can return to work, I agree with the decision. I love kids, but they are little germ mongers and spreading the virus further is not going to serve us economically or health-wise in the long run. But holy cow. The number of people who will now be out of work is staggering. Cafeteria workers, food and catering workers who provide the meals for students, bus drivers, janitors, after-school program workers, maintenance engineers, security guards and I’m guessing, teaching staff.

I don’t bring all of this up to depress us, but to begin to scratch the surface of what we’re really experiencing. A global pandemic is a serious event. And since we haven’t been able to get it under control in many countries, it is going to continue to disrupt our lives substantially. And it is going to lead to permanent changes in how we live in ways we can’t even conceive of yet.

We see a lot of resistance around the world, from refusing to wear masks to protests against governments shutting down cities to Covid parties where the first person to catch the virus wins a prize to massive government and political blaming instead of accountability. Some behave this way in order to avoid the discomfort of confronting the reality of the situation, or more accurately, the uncertainty of the situation. It makes some of us feel better, at least in the short term. We’re wired to avoid pain and discomfort, so I have no doubt, these behaviors will continue or even intensify.

The funny thing is, we’re creating a lot more suffering for ourselves and others. We are understandably upset about this difficult situation, which tends to lead to angrily questioning how unfair life is or how wrong other people are. We then resist or fight the current situation, bringing on feelings of distress about our pain. This dilemma is so common that long ago, Buddhists created a formula to describe it: Pain x Resistance = Suffering. Pain is unavoidable in life but the suffering is completely optional. We create most of our own suffering.

It’s absolutely painful to lose your job, but it’s the uncertainty of what you can do next that causes the most pain. How do you find a job if your industry is shut down? How do you find a job when there are 40,000,000 other people out of work at the same time? Consider everything we’re facing right now and you’ll see a trend. What if I have the virus? What if I can’t get tested? What if my kids can’t go back to school? What if there are shortages of necessities again? What if I lose my business? What if I have to let staff go? How long will this last?

The massive uncertainty we’re dealing with is extremely painful because our brains are not wired to accept uncertainty. So instead of really dealing with the issues at hand, we resist to avoid the uncomfortable feelings. And that is what creates true suffering because we’re not moving forward, we’re stuck in trying to fight something that isn’t fightable.

What’s a better, more mindful approach? Psychological flexibility and resilience. If you’re not feeling like you have enough of these, don’t worry. They aren’t traits you’re born with, but are behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned by anyone and fortunately, mindfulness is one of the most powerful practices to strengthen these skills. We discussed resilience just a few weeks ago and how you can strengthen yours, but I think we need to add flexibility to our toolbox, as I believe these two combined are the most important skills we can develop now to ensure that we can thrive through the constant uncertainty we’re living with, and will be for some time.

You may recall that resilience is our ability to adapt and bounce back when things don't go as planned. Psychological flexibility, also known as adaptability, is a person’s ability to focus on their current situation and take appropriate action towards achieving their goals and values, even in the presence of challenging thoughts, feelings, memories, etc. People demonstrating PF base their behavior more on their values and goals and less on their internal events, like uncomfortable feelings, or the current situational contingencies.

Mindfulness strengthens our adaptability because it allows us to focus on our difficult internal events mindfully. When taking a mindful approach to internal experiences, we are not wasting mental energy on trying to control and regulate psychological experiences, so instead of resisting how scared, upset or angry we’re feeling by projecting them onto other people or events, we non-judgmentally observe what’s going on inside and apply self-compassion and healing to the real pain we’re experiencing. The suffering component doesn’t need to be added into the mix at all.

Another approach to increasing our adaptability is looking at the contrast. The opposite of flexibility is rigidity. One of the reasons we get stuck in rigidity is because our brains are wired for judgment, analysis and problem-solving. Someone who is rigid feels threatened by change and new ideas, whereas someone who is adaptable feels excited by continuing to move ahead.

With a rigid mindset, we think we already know the answer to a problem or what a new situation offers. While there are certainly situations where there is a good reason not to change something, having psychological flexibility provides the ability to balance closely held values with responsiveness in the face of continuous change. Ask yourself whether there are any areas in which you might be rigid. How would you handle things differently if you were more adaptable? Just pondering these questions is going to increase your adaptability.

Adaptability is key not only in the context of our day-to-day interactions, it plays out as a skill that’s needed on a global level. Rigidity fuels a great deal of conflict around the world.

It shows up as self-righteousness in politics, religion and the economy. It can also lock people into very competitive win/lose approaches that value dominance over collaboration. Notice any of that happening lately?

Rigidity freezes us in suffering and minimizes our ability to think creatively. Judgments create suffering that only hurt us and not the people or institutions we’re judging. Resilience helps us move forward. Flexibility helps us create options.

I’ve used this quote before, but I think it bears repeating:

It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself. ~ Charles Darwin

The truth regarding the pandemic is this. No one knows. We’ve never done this before. Experts and politicians are going to make mistakes. More people will get sick and unfortunately more will die. We need to look inward and pay attention to our own instincts. My common sense tells me wearing a mask is a good idea. Yours may tell you the opposite. We don’t know for certain who is right or wrong and that really shouldn’t be the focus at this point.

We probably won’t know until years after this ends how it really worked, what the health impacts are, what the total economic toll is and how to address it differently if it returns. That means that for the next year or two, we will be facing uncertainty on multiple issues on a daily basis. By working on loosening our rigidity and observing our judgments, we can learn to go more with the flow, whatever direction it takes. And we can open up towards more compassion for ourselves and others. Instead of fighting with each other over who is right or wrong, we could all focus more on solutions to make life better for everyone under these difficult circumstances. It’s only our minds that really get in the way.

I asked today’s guest, Dr Gail Gazelle, about her thoughts on some of this. She is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Associate Scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. As one of the leading physician coaches in this country, she has coached over 500 physicians and has been featured on such diverse media as Bloomberg Businessweek, Medical Economics, the Physician Leadership Journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, CNN, and ABC News. Her book, Everyday Resilience, comes out next month.

I love that Dr. Gazelle said that taking deep breaths brings us out of our crazy minds. We all have crazy minds at various times throughout our days.

We can always return to the present moment which is a safe moment. Just pause. Breathe. And find the good or compassion or empathy or gratitude or any other emotion that lifts you up instead of pulling you down.

We’ve made it this far so there’s no reason to believe we can’t make it through to the pandemic finish line. We just need to mind our minds.

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