One of the hallmarks of mental health and emotional well-being is to be able to recognize the need to change one’s mind, or do something differently than before. It’s not always easy or quick, especially when emergent circumstances dramatically change what’s required. But the ability to be flexible and to see change as necessary—or possible—is a skill that can be developed.
Homo Sapiens have lasted as long as we have on planet Earth, by paying attention to signals of danger in our surroundings. Early humans who were casual about saber-toothed tigers aren’t with us anymore. They didn’t survive long enough to become our ancestors. As modern humans, we’re cued to notice differences in our environments, because in our predecessors’ times, those were harbingers of danger. These days we don’t necessarily perceive everything that’s new as a hazard. For example, a new car is seen as exciting. A new romantic relationship is perceived for its tantalizing possibilities. With that said, your brain’s ability to notice what is different goes back to a time when a new experience meant potential danger. You may have noticed that it doesn’t take long before a new car looks dangerous only to your bank balance—then, poof! The car itself no longer registers as new. In other words, the sooner we move from seeing a change as a threat—to autonomy, safety, freedom or ego—the sooner we can begin to make sense of the changed circumstance.
The trouble comes, of course, when a situation arises that we don’t like, and worse yet, if it’s a situation we cannot control. We resist! We push back out of fear, or inconvenience, and we get angry. Sometimes a circumstance requires so much new thinking, and is so overwhelming, it seems that adapting to it means to “give in or give up”. I’ve seen that reaction when one member of a household declares they’ve become vegetarian. I have observed it when a spouse admits an affair. The newness of the situation need not be drastic or unusual: I’ve seen strong reactions when the youngest child started kindergarten. Whenever a situation seems impossible, outrageous, or just plain painful, we are likely to resist understanding it—for a while. Sometimes, for a very long while. The situation feels so wrong that it’s difficult for a new reality to penetrate that resistance. New information seems to do no good; seeing others accept the new circumstance doesn’t help; and, resistance may drive the belief that it’s possible to “turn things around”—just go back to the way things were before. I’ve seen that response to requests that we wear face coverings during the pandemic. In the extreme, this kind of resistance takes one outside the realm of reality. When change is inevitable, it is usually best to get on with it: let go of the battle, drop the struggle, find a point of calm in the storm and move along.
However, just for a moment, please consider things that we must never accommodate: Domestic violence, child abuse, racial injustice, workplace harassment, sexual exploitation—these should never be tolerated. We should never get comfortable with conditions that are inexcusable. But the mind has an uncanny irrational way of framing up personal bias, preference or an inconvenience as something that must be opposed!
For myself, it feels reasonable to cultivate as much calm as possible, so that changing times don’t toss me around too much emotionally. Calling the right mental images to mind is helpful in that regard: I occasionally picture a gymnast, or maybe an Olympic diver. I think of the agility and discipline of their craft. I imagine how each muscle has been toned and strengthened so that it responds perfectly to command. These athletes appear poised, graceful, ready. They have trained themselves to remain very still, or to make fluid movements toward a purposeful goal. They are in control of the space inside their heads. Their narrow focus is not on the outer world, but rather on the specific and precise movements—or stillness—required in the moment. When I picture myself to be similarly poised—mentally and emotionally at least—I feel able to capably move in the directions required by a new situation.
Whether the pandemic is an unbelievable hoax, or an existential threat, thinking about it definitely stimulates emotion. Anger for some, anxiety for others. Simply recognizing thoughts and emotions that come and go as we encounter the inconveniences and perturbations of this time can be a reminder of the need to become like trained athletes, mentally if not physically. Slowing down, taking a measured approach to information, recognizing the implications of any action—all can be useful. When I vigorously challenge my own gut reactions, I’m able to look beyond unfounded opinions and sound bites. I’m more likely to be mentally and emotionally agile, ready to assume a new role, take a new stance, to move quickly when necessary or to stand very still, depending on what the particular situation requires. A gymnast poised on the balance beam, a ballet dancer en pointe, a diver on the high board—every image conveys discipline and mental readiness.
Calling on images of gymnasts and divers, tightrope walkers and even yoga masters, I’m able to think more clearly about two seemingly opposite mental states—the narrow focus and the big picture. I’m able to see how important it is to maintain a wide perspective on the circumstance, while being specific and precise in what I do. Most important, it allows me to adjust to what is happening without causing greater distress or harm—to myself or to others.