Roller coaster rides remain exciting because of their ups and downs. Ditto the stock market, alpine landscapes and city rooftops. Watching a loved one’s heart rhythm on a hospital heart monitor, is to hope for a steady pattern of highs and lows. Not a flat line. And so it is with life – the set-backs provide variety, challenge, a chance to learn from mistakes. Prompts to develop your character (prompts to us become edits by us). And make you appreciate the highs that much more.
Variation with limits is a form of flexibility. A greater form of flexibility comes from putting in intermediate control points, allowing you to influence the degree of variation (variation with sub limits). Guitar players do this when they put a capo (clamp) on their strings to change the pitch of the sound. Car designers use ABS technology to prevent full-on braking by the driver, from locking the car wheels into a skid. Martial arts teachers require role play and play fighting from their students, to train them without bodily injury. All are examples of variation with sub-limits.
When it comes to life’s minor set-backs and disappointments, personal flexibility takes the form of tempering frustration. And converting it into hope. Hope for cessation, improvement or avoidance.
When the set-back or disappointment is more severe, the process of overcoming shock, a sense of injustice and conversion into positive thoughts, takes more time. And more emotional energy.
When the set-back is large, e.g. the loss of a loved one, redundancy, marital failure, loss of personal reputation or business failure, the tempering & converting needs to become a transformation instead. There is an entire grief cycle to work through. People who see you suffer these extreme set-backs may intervene. But not always constructively. Or when you most need them.
This blogger has experienced some of those larger set-backs. Redundancy was one. After the initial surprise, I had to concede to myself, that in my decades-long career, it would inevitably and eventually strike. And to rationalise the experience in a few different ways. For example, whether applying for a job, or being made redundant, you have to continue believing in yourself. Otherwise, how can you expect others to? For example, seeing job redundancy as simply being surplus to requirements of one employer at a particular stage in their journey. Not as being made redundant from the human race per se. Marital failure. Again, to learn from the experience of marriage and ‘get it right the next time around’. The death of both parents. To see death as a regular part of the cycle of life. To remember all the good things that my parents taught me. To remember them well and to pay something forward. Weirdly, the more you carry forward those peoples’ influence (happy memories, words of support, guidance & advice), the more you also feel their loss. But because you carry it forward and because you’re now a fully-fledged adult, the less you feel it too.
Personal losses and set-backs are a strange thing. For some people, each loss of a loved one, each redundancy experience, or job application declined, simply fuels their negative feelings. And dents their self-image. Where those feelings manifest in a negative self image, a rigid, negative spiral sets in. It can take a lot of emotional energy to get your rationalising head to rule your emotional heart. But you have to ask yourself, what other choice is there?
‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that it won’t work.’ Thomas Edison
‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.’ Thomas Edison
So how can building up your personal flexibility (PFL) help to cope with life’s set-backs? Firstly, by building your PFL in the good times, your resilience to set-backs will increase, helping you cope in the bad times. Build up goodwill, friendship and family ties when you don’t need them. People who care will then reach out to you when it matters.
Second, build up some financial savings in the good times. To have the freedom to engage a counsellor or therapist in the bad times. You never know in advance just how strongly a future set back will make you feel. And how strongly that need to reach out for professional help.
Arguably, for more severe set-backs you need a combination of loved ones and detached professionals to reach you in different ways. The professional can hopefully get you adjusted to return to regular life. Your friends and family will keep you there.
A final thought. Survival and adjustment to loss are fundamental aspects of life. Their gift to you is to give you the credibility and insight to help those who come after you and suffer similar set-backs. Keep your personal flexibility intact to help them the most.
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