Practice Response Flexibility to Improve Your Resilience

Linda Graham, MFT and author of Resilience and Bouncing Back, looks at the power of response flexibility, an important aspect of resilience.  It’s the ability we all have to shift our attitude in any moment, no matter what has happened.    

Reflective intelligence hones your perceptions and responses to any event, any issue.  You can uncover and examine complex patterns of “thinking” that could derail your resilience and rewire them if you wish to.

You can learn to pause and become present, notice and name, allow-tolerate-accept, observe – to increasingly complex objects of awareness – sensations, emotions, thoughts, patterns of thought, beliefs, assumptions, values, points of view, identities.  Mindfulness even allows us to observe the processes of the brain that creates those “mental contents” and shift them to something more flexible and “open-minded” when necessary.

Many people think of mindfulness as a kind of thinking or cognition. Not exactly. Mindful awareness is more about being with rather than thinking about – knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it.  This awareness and reflection about experience (and your reactions to your experience) creates choice points in your brain.  You can respond flexibly to whatever is happening, moment by moment by moment.

Here’s my own story of shit happens, but shift happens, too, to illustrate mindfulness helping me change my relationship to my thought patterns.

When I had an office in San Francisco, I would park my car in Golden Gate Park and walk two blocks to my office.  I could do that on automatic pilot.  One day I was worried about something, not paying enough attention to where I was walking, and blithely stepped into a sidewalk of freshly laid wet cement – up to my ankles. Ooh!  Yuck!

Immediately the self-critical talk started.  “You stupid klutz!  Look what you’ve done.  You’ve ruined your shoes.  You’re going to be late for clients.  You’ll have to re-schedule clients.  You’ll probably lose clients over this.  You’ll lose your business…” all in less than three seconds.

By then I had enough mindfulness and self-compassion practice under my belt that I could stop…”Wait a minute!  So I was pre-occupied!  I’m sick and tired of winding up feeling lousy about myself when I was just unconscious for a moment.  For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about me being stupid.”

With that interruption of my catastrophic thinking, I realized I did have a choice about how I was going to handle this.  I picked up my feet out of my shoes and picked my shoes out of the cement. And tried for a little bit of compassion for myself.  “Shit happens.  I’m probably not the only person on the planet who made a mistake today because they weren’t paying attention. This is probably not the only mistake I’m going to make today.  Sure, I’m a little embarrassed, but that doesn’t mean anything more about me than I just wasn’t paying attention.”

There was an apartment building nearby with an outdoor water faucet, and as I began to wash off my shoes, it dawned on me: “Yes, shit happens.  Life is happening this way to me in this moment.  But ‘shift happens’, too.”  I could open to the lesson of the moment: choosing to shift my perspective and cope resiliently right there, right then. 

One of the construction workers came over and gave me some paper towels to dry my shoes – and to this day I’m grateful he was kind; he wasn’t teasing or humiliating.  And then I realized, If I can change my attitude in this moment, I can change my attitude in any moment.  That’s the big shift.

Shit happens.

Shift happens, too.

If I can shift my attitude in this moment,

I can shift my attitude in any moment.

This was all said more eloquently by Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived three and half years in Nazi concentrations camps, including Auschwitz:

“Between a stimulus and a response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Mindfulness helps us notice what’s happening in the moment, and our reaction to what’s happening in the moment, no matter what’s happening in the moment. We can catch the moment and make a choice. We can shift our attitude, our perspective, we can shift our choices of behaviors in any moment.  That reflective choosing supports our response flexibility.  That is the response flexibility that allows us to be resilient. 

How you respond to the issue…is the issue. – Frankie Perez

The practice of mindfulness allows the practitioner to become of the awareness itself, the consciousness itself, that can “hold” whatever is happening in the moment without being caught up in it, often likened to a vast sky that the storms and clouds of our experience blow through.  In the Eastern spiritual traditions where mindfulness developed thousands of years ago, mindfulness was considered to be practice powerful enough to bring the practitioner all the way to full Enlightenment.

I believe that to be true.  Many, many people across the ages and across cultures have lived into that truth.  Here, as we apply the practice of mindfulness to recover our resilience, we can unpack the events of my story above to learn how this might be so.

A minor mistake – inadvertently stepping into the cement – too much automatic pilot hurrying through my morning, not enough conscious awareness of what I was doing or where I was going – triggered a startle response in my nervous system: Ooh! Yuck!  And that triggered a well-worn pattern of catastrophic thinking – disaster! With the accompanying shaming-blaming-harping on myself, “You stupid klutz!” Etc.

It was the mindfulness that stopped that pattern.  “Wait a minute!” And the reflection, “So I was pre-occupied!” and the choice, “For once, I’d like to deal with something….” that changed the pattern.

The catching the moment, making a choice, opened up new perceptions in my mind: “I’m not the only person on the planet today…” and new possibilities in my behaviors – washing off my shoes.  That moment of coping led to the reflection: “If I can shift my attitude in this moment, I can shift my attitude in any moment.”

That’s the insight into the response flexibility that is the foundation of our resilience.  Mindfulness allows us to know what’s happening in the moment as it’s happening.  We can integrate the capacities of mindfulness to reflect on “what is,” with the cognitive capacities of the pre-frontal cortex – capacities of executive functioning – to analyze, plan, make judgments, make decisions.  to reflect on what could be –This integration is what allows you to “monitor and modify” your responses to your experience, not just in the moment but for the long haul.  You can choose wisely.

Linda Graham, MFT

Linda Graham, MFT

Linda Graham, MFT is the author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being (New World Library). Linda specializes in relationship counseling in full-time private practice in Corte Madera, CA. She offers trainings and consultation nationwide on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience.