Every problem should have an ideal solution - and it is intolerable when one can't be found.
Naturally, when faced with one of life's inevitable problems, we want a good solution. This is quite rational - and only becomes a problem when we escalate our desire for such a solution to a demand. Sometimes there is not a 'good' solution available - only a choice between less than desirable options. We can make the problem even worse if we believe that not only is a 'good' solution required - but an 'ideal' or 'perfect' one. How many of life's problems have 'ideal' solutions?
Demanding 'ideal' solutions can lead to many problems:
Several distortions of reality may be involved with your perfectionism. Black and white thinking (also called 'all-or-nothing thinking') is common. You view things in extremes: total success v. total failure, superb v. lousy, right v. wrong, perfect v. useless. Over-generalising can lead you to think that because high standards are possible, 'perfection' is too; or that one or a few mistakes means you are 'always making mistakes.'
The real problem, though, is demanding - jumping from the belief that because perfection is possible, therefore you should or must achieve it - coupled with the idea that if you do not, this reflects on your self-worth (self-rating) or will lead to dire consequences and unbearable discomfort (awfulising and discomfort-intolerance).
Flexible people can bend with the storm rather than be broken by it. They know how to adapt and adjust to new circumstances that call for new ways of thinking and behaving. They have resilience - the ability to bounce back from adversity.
The principle of flexibility
To be flexible is to be open to change in yourself and in the world. As circumstances alter, you are able to modify your plans and behaviours. You are able to adopt new ways of thinking that help you cope with a changing world. You are able to let others hold their own beliefs and do things in ways appropriate to them - while you do what is right for you.
Flexibility in thinking means:
Flexibility in behaviour means:
Why flexibility is important to emotional health
Flexibility aids survival in a changing world. The world, as it always has, continues to change - but the pace of change is increasing. If there is not a corresponding change in attitudes there will be distress. We see this in the so-called 'generation gap'. Parents who are inflexible find it harder to cope when their children behave in ways unthinkable in their generation. We can cope better when we see change as a challenge rather than a threat.
Flexibility leads to better problem-solving. As Roger Von Oech states, there are times we need to step outside what we know or usually do and look at a problem from new angles in order to find new solutions (Von Oech, Roger: A Whack on the Side of the Head. Angus & Robertson Publishers, Sydney, 1984). Even negative events - like being made redundant - can create opportunities to 'step outside'.
Flexibility will make it easier to change your goals to suit new circumstances. Getting older or sustaining a disability, for example, usually requires one to adapt to significant lifestyle changes.
Flexibility will help you break out of boring routines and maintain stimulation and variety in your life. It will also help you manage your time better, by enabling you to change your plans to suit changing situations.
Learn how to problem-solve
The technique of problem-solving is described in detail in Choose to be Happy and GoodStress. What follows is a summary of the process you can go through to solve more difficult problems which require a structured approach. There are eight steps:
It makes sense, wherever possible, to change things you dislike. But there will be some things you will not be able to change. You then have two choices - you can rail against fate and stay distressed; or you can accept reality and move on.
The principle of acceptance
To accept something involves three aspects:
Acceptance of reality includes many things
There are many realities people are called upon to accept. Here are some that are especially relevant to emotional health:
What acceptance is not
Many people have trouble with the idea of acceptance. They think that to accept something means they have to like it, agree with it, justify it, be indifferent to it, or resign themselves to it.
Acceptance is none of these things. You can dislike something, see it as unjustified and continue to prefer that it not exist. You can be concerned about it. You can take action to change it, if change is possible. But you can still accept it by rejecting the idea that it should not exist and that it absolutely must be changed.
Why acceptance is important to emotional health
Hurting yourself does not change what you dislike, and will only take away energy better used to confront and solve problems. By reducing the intensity of your bad feelings, you will be less disabled by them. Acceptance can, paradoxically, increase your chances of changing what you dislike!
Acceptance will help you tolerate what you cannot change, and avoid adding unnecessary emotional pain to the unpleasantness of the situation itself.
Acceptance, finally, will help you avoid wasting time and energy and risking your emotional or physical health by striving for what is unattainable.
Developing acceptance of reality
Take note of non-accepting thoughts and behaviour. Watch out for:
Keep reality in perspective. When facing an unpleasant development in your life:
Challenge your demands that reality not be as it is. Ask yourself:
To sum up
We can sum up our discussion of acceptance with a paraphrase of a well-known saying. It suggests that to achieve happiness, there are three things to strive for: the courage to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we can't - and the wisdom to know the difference (a saying originally coined by a Taoist monk, popularised by Reinhold Niebuhr, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, and paraphrased by Gunars Neiders.
One last thing. Don't make these principles into demands. They are ideals. Probably no-one could practice them all consistently. Rather than see them as absolute 'musts' for managing your stress, use them as guidelines to a better life.
Other helpful resources
Links within this programme
Seligman, Martin E.P. What You Can Change and What You Can't: The complete guide to successful self-improvement. Random House, Sydney, 1994.
Von Oech, Roger. A Whack on the Side of the Head. Angus and Robertson Publishers, Sydney. 1984.
From rigidity to flexibility and acceptance
You can aid your problem-solving and avoid unnecessary emotional pain by changing what you tell yourself about your problems. Here is a new belief to help you do this:
'Problems usually have many possible solutions. It's better to stop waiting for the perfect one and get on with the best available. I can live with less than the ideal.'