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How Well Adapted Are You?

Science and psychology say there are two sides of human adaptability

Lawrence*, a 68 year-old retiree, tells me he is prepared for anything life tosses at him. “When I was a child we had air raid drills in school because we were afraid that Russia was going to drop an atomic bomb on the U.S. When I was a teen, I was drafted into the army and went to Vietnam. We had race riots in my hometown and drug wars on my street. I’ve been poor, hungry, and afraid. And I survived. I know I can manage whatever I need to manage.”

Lawrence spent his adult life working as a drug counselor. “Lots of my friends became addicted,” he says. “That could have been me. I figured since it wasn’t, I ought to do what I could to help the ones who didn’t escape.” He has been married for forty years, and now he and his wife spend much of their time traveling and visiting their grown children and grandchildren.

What made it possible for Lawrence to escape the drug culture that was all around him, while so many of his friends did not? According to one group of theories, it might have been his adaptability.

Adaptability in its most basic form is “the ability to adjust to different conditions.”

To start the process of thinking about how adaptable you are, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Am I comfortable with change?
  2. Do I embrace differences in friends, relatives, strangers, and colleagues?
  3. Do I find a comfort zone and stay there, no matter what?

Most of us think that if we answer “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the last, we are showing that we are highly adaptable. Yet there are times when being too comfortable with change and difference and not holding tightly enough to a comfort zone can actually be signs of a lack of adaptability.

So now, ask yourself these next four questions:

  1. Do I feel comfortable with who I am most of the time?
  2. Am I okay when I feel confused or conflicted about something?
  3. Can I feel calm when my own views are in conflict with someone else's?
  4. Do I feel comfortable with some change and some stability in my life?

If you are able to answer “yes” to these four questions, you are probably able to adapt without giving up a sense of who you are. And that is one of the most important components of adaptability: the ability to change, when it would be useful, and to maintain a sense of stability about yourself at the same time.

antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo
Source: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

The psychologist David J. Wallin tells us that children are brilliant at adapting to their parents’ personalities. This ability to sense what their parents need and to respond appropriately is how children learn. It is also how we manage to function in the world as adults.

Professor of Social Work Alex Gitterman writes that an adult’s “social functioning and adaptations reflect the interplay and degree of congruence and compatibility between body, mind, and the environment.”

Adaptability does not mean giving up all that you hold dear. In fact, sometimes being overly flexible can create problems. For instance, says Wallin, unfortunately, some of the very same life-saving skills interfere with a child’s ability to see that not everyone is like his or her parents. Assuming that other people in our lives have the same needs that our parents and family have can create difficulties of its own in adulthood.

According to researchers, most adaptation is “epigenetic,” that is, an interaction between who we are and what we experience. At its best, epigenetic evolution leads to a greater capacity to function in the world. So learning to adapt involves both acceptance of difference and comfort with sameness. How do you find a way to provide this balance for yourself? And can you also teach it to your children?

Lynette*, a mother of three teenagers, told me that she had always had separation anxiety. “I was afraid to leave my parents,” she said. “So I didn’t do sleepovers as a young kid, and I had troubles when I went to sleep away camp and to college. I survived all of those experiences, and even made some good friends. But I wish I had gotten some kind of help managing my anxiety.”

When her own children were young, Lynette wanted to make sure that they did not struggle as she had. Her impulse was to force them to separate, even when they were frightened, but her husband offered another solution. “He suggested that we talk with them about what they were afraid of, and that we offer them ways of dipping their toes into situations that made them nervous instead of pushing them into the water, so to speak.” This compromise worked well for all three of her youngsters.

“Two of them have no separation fears at all,” she said. “And the third has learned to accept his anxiety and has a bunch of tools for managing it.” She added, “and in the process of trying to find tools for him, I’ve developed some new tools of my own.”

Adaptability, then, is not a matter of ignoring your own feelings, needs, beliefs, or thoughts and pushing through no matter what. It’s a process of interacting with changes – in your life, in the world around your, and even in yourself – with a mixture of compassion, understanding, and curiosity. You might be surprised. Even the most inflexible of us can, with some effort, adapt at least a little when we approach change with these three qualities in mind.

*names and identifying information changed for privacy

Please let me know what you think by commenting below. Unfortunately, I am no longer able to reply to requests for advice, but other readers might have suggestions for you.

Copyright @fdbarth2017


Handbook of Social Work Practice with Vulnerable and Resilient Populations third edition Edition, Columbia University Press, 2013, by Alex Gitterman (Editor)

Attachment in Psychotherapy Reprint Edition, The Guilford Press, 2014, by David J. Wallin (Author)