Abstract Ideas Lead to Real-World Resilience

How imagination can help you cope with adversity

Posted Aug 25, 2015

Source: freeimages.com

Last weekend my daughter made a fort in the garage. She used umbrellas as a roof, an old bin as the south wall, and two sledding discs for placemats. Then she cooked me a meal of pine needle stew and immediately began planning how we would live in the future if the entire house began floating downstream in a flood. We live in Oregon so this plan isn’t totally without merit.

She was playing with abstract thought and having a good time doing it. Thing is, many of the elaborate schemes she was imagining could, in a back-door-kind-of way have real world application. All were testing her problem-solving abilities and these kinds of imaginative games and abstract associations and thoughts also cultivate creativity and resilience.

What is Abstract Thinking?

Abstract thought allows us to conceptualize, to make a symbolic representations, or draw connections and patterns to things that are not necessarily present or real to us now. This allows us to shift, adapt, predict, plan, and draw conclusions that move us into a place of engagement or deeper meaning or understanding. This can also help us manage adversity and challenge.

When we are in concrete-thinking mode we are drawing from the facts before us. We are rooted in what we can see and sense right now. We tend to be more analytical in this moment, more mathy and sciency.

Abstract thinking allows us to create, feel spiritual, find meaning, plan things that we’ve never done before, imagine how it will feel when we complete our goals, and to figure how to get out of potential trouble.

Concrete thinking gets us to sit and read a book, take the steps necessary to cook a meal, call the doctor, carry out tasks.

Both concrete and abstract thought forms are essential to our success and well-being and they are indicators of our resilience.

When under pressure, though, how well we bounce between abstract and concrete thinking patterns will determine how well we manage. And, often, using our imaginations to think beyond the circumstances we find ourselves in can help us move through them easier.

Creating Psychological Distance

Abstract thinking can also help us create psychological distance. If we imagine ourselves living in the future, or in a different scenario than the one we are presently in, or if we look on our circumstances from the perspective of a distant observer we create emotional distance that helps us cope.

Several studies indicate this kind of psychological distance makes a difficult task easier to deal with by helping us to make wiser decisions, boosting creativity, and preventing us from heading into the emotional deep end when things go wrong. 

When we take an abstract view and see ourselves as distant or separate from the problem, we become less reactive and more able to glean insights we need to deal with it.

With this kind of abstract approach we are free to draw from our memories and make random associations and connections to innovate, create, problem solve our way through challenge.

In the end, we are doing more than building umbrella forts on the garage floor. We are also building our resilience.