Life is rarely a smooth ride where everything goes to plan.

There are many uncertainties, unpredictabilities and hiccups along the way. But the more you are able to adapt to new conditions, the less painful the process becomes.

Psychological flexibility includes lateral thinking, the ability – or at least willingness – to adapt to changed conditions, and the resolve to tolerate discomfort. It is the opposite to being mentally rigid, with fixed ideas, set expectations and unbending attitudes. Here are the characteristics to develop or strengthen if you want to enhance your ability to navigate unpredictable events and challenges.

Accept reality

Whatever the situation, see things as they are rather than as you wish them to be or have been told they are. Be realistic about options and available resources. Make a realistic assessment of your strengths and limitations, and of those of other people involved.

Take a “helicopter view” of your situation

When problems are mounting and you are bogged down in difficulties, step out of the drama. Adopt a broader perspective and take a more detached view of your circumstances. Distinguish between what is important and what is not, what is within your control and what you have to accept. Look for new options and assess ways to deal with the issues.

Be solution focused

There is more than one way to do things. Instead of dwelling on problems look for solutions to your difficulties, even if only small steps are possible and detours unavoidable. Base your decisions and priorities on what seems possible at the time. If one way does not work try another one.

Tolerate turbulence

Sudden changes, difficult conditions, roadblocks, hiccups, mistakes and failures all create uncertainty and upheaval. Expectations that life should be calm, predictable and pleasant may not be realistic anymore. Find ways to navigate upheavals, know when to cut your losses or when to mobilise your best efforts.

Go with the flow

Sometimes things move rapidly, other times nothing much seems to happen. Sometimes determined actions bring great results, but then there are phases where nothing shifts despite our best efforts. Be willing to let things be when pushing or resisting are fruitless. Be patient and roll with the punches until there is an opening for decisive strides forward.

Monitor your thoughts

Even though they seem so real and true, most thoughts are automatic and flavoured by your interpretation of events. Beware those who drag you down. Catastrophising, generalising, exaggerating, black-or-white-thinking can interpret the situation as worse than it is. Without giving them credence, let them be in the background and consciously choose realistic and uplifting ways of thinking.  

Manage your energies

You might find yourself in uncharted territory and way beyond your comfort zone. You may have to tolerate imperfection and uncertainty. If you are upset or overwhelmed it is hard to look at situations with a clear head. Use strategies for self-calming, especially breathing exercises or techniques to calm the nervous system. Make space for other forms of self-care that refresh and strengthen you.

Make peace with your emotions

Uncertainty, thwarted expectations and stepping outside your comfort zone can trigger distressing emotions. Fears, anxiety, worry, feeling at a loss, confusion, or other disturbing  feelings may surface. Question the thoughts associated with them – are they realistic, true and helpful? Notice the emotions and let them be but do not get drawn into their intensity. Be like someone rowing a little boat through a storm: Don’t allow yourself to be flustered or in despair but keep moving forward until the waters become calmer.

Stand strong

Don’t be deterred or discouraged by uncertainty, not-knowing or chaos. Stay grounded in your own presence, but able to sway with the challenges life presents. If things don’t turn out the way you expected or hoped for, don’t give up but adjust and find a new direction to take. Trust yourself to cope with whatever situation you find yourself in.

What do you find most useful when life throws unexpected challenges at you? What is your greatest difficulty? How can you boost your ability to adapt and adjust? What do you see as the most important skill in psychological flexibility? Feel free to share your thoughts and let others benefit from your wisdom.