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:

  • Constant dissatisfaction with oneself and one's circumstances.
  • Lower productivity: if you spend too much time on one problem, this means less time for others.
  • Avoidance: an even worse consequence of perfectionism is putting off solving problems because there is no apparent 'ideal' solution.
  • Increased stress
  • Resistance to change: an increasing feature of modern life is change, which carries with it the need to adapt and find new ways of dealing with events and circumstances. Demanding impossible perfection may lead to putting one's head in the sand

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:

  • Your values are preferences rather than rigid, unvarying rules.
  • You are open to changing ways of thinking in the light of new information and evidence.
  • You view change as a challenge rather than a threat.

Flexibility in behaviour means:

  • You are able to change direction when it is in your interests.
  • You are willing to try new ways of dealing with problems and frustrations.
  • You can let others do things their way.
  • You avoid distressing yourself when things turn out different to how you would like them to be.

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.

Developing flexibility

  • Use rational self-analysis to identify and change inflexible thinking. Watch especially for any black & white thinking or demanding 'shoulds' and 'musts'.
  • Expose yourself to new ways of looking at things. Read books that adopt positions other than yours, talk to people with differing views, watch movies you would normally not bother with.
  • Practice flexibility by rearranging your office or home furniture, hanging some new pictures, visiting places you have never been.
  • Get into the habit of pausing before you take action on a problem and look at ways of solving it different to what you would normally do. In other words, attempt to act out of character on a regular basis.

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:

  1. Spell out the problem: state the problem in concrete terms. Be specific and break the problem down into its various parts. This will help you see it more clearly and work on it in small chunks.
  2. Collect information: gather whatever information on the problem you can find.
  3. Set goals: set a direction in which to go by turning the problems into goals. State them as specifically as possible, so that you can know when they have been achieved.
  4. Develop alternative solutions: first develop a range of possible strategies to achieve the goals you have set. Use the brainstorming procedure - write down every potential solution you can think of, no matter how way-out they seem. The idea is to generate the largest number of options you can. Then decide which strategies to pursue.
  5. Identify any blocks to your strategies: are there any things which might get in the way of the strategies you have chosen? Identify them now.
  6. Develop tactics: your strategies (or 'sub-goals' are aimed to achieve your general goal). Now generate some tactics - specific ways of achieving your strategies or sub-goals. Tactics are what you actually do. Once again, use the brainstorming method described in Step 3. Then select the tactics to put into action.
  7. Act on your tactics: now carry out the tactics you have chosen.
  8. Evaluate the results: if you do not get the results you want, don't give up. Just go back to an earlier stage of the process and start again from that point.

Here are some tips to aid your problem-solving:

  • Keep in mind that there are no black or white answers.
  • Judge potential solutions on their level of usefulness, not on their 'rightness'.
  • Be open to looking at a range of options. In a rapidly changing world, it is necessary to look beyond old solutions.

Accepting reality

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:

  1. Acknowledgment of reality. This involves admitting that reality - including unpleasant reality - exists. You see it as inevitable that many things will not be to your liking. You view uncertainty, frustration and disappointment as aspects of normal life.
  2. Absence of any demand that reality not exist. This means that although you may prefer yourself, other people, things, or circumstances to be different from how they are (and you may even work at changing them), you know there is no 'Law of the Universe' which says they should or must be different.
  3. Keeping unwanted realities in perspective. You dislike some things, and find them unpleasant - but you avoid catastrophising them into 'horrible' or 'unbearable'.

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:

  • Uncertainty. In the real world there are no certainties. The outcomes of our actions can never be guaranteed. It is helpful to anticipate the future, but we can never know for sure what it holds.
  • Utopia is unlikely. You and I will almost certainly never get everything we want. This includes total happiness or personal perfection. We will probably always experience some pain, anxiety, or depression.
  • There are limitations to personal change. There are many things we can change, like anxiety and depression. But there are some things that will not change no matter how much we try, as Martin Seligman points out in his book What You Can Change and What You Can't (Random House, Sydney, 1994). Accepting this reality can help people avoid much unnecessary distress.
  • We cannot change others. One thing we can never change is other people. Only they can change themselves. Accepting this reality may save a lot of pain.

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:

  • Believing that people or things should be different to how they are; that it is awful and intolerable when things are not as they should be; that the world should be a fair place; that one should always be treated fairly.
  • Feeling angry but unable to do anything.
  • 'Needing' to get other people to admit they are wrong, or avoiding acceptance because it might mean giving away a sense of self-rightness.

Keep reality in perspective. When facing an unpleasant development in your life:

  • Use the 'time-projection' technique.
  • Ask 'Is this situation, event or possibility really so bad for me?'
  • Develop a 'catastrophe scale'.
  • Query yourself: 'How much do I really need to upset myself over this?'

Challenge your demands that reality not be as it is. Ask yourself:

  • 'Can I really change … (this person, this situation, etc.)?'
  • 'Though I would prefer that … be different to how it is, where is it written that it should be?'
  • 'Why must this not happen?'
  • 'Is demanding that this person change going to make them change - or would I be better to try and understand how they see things and then attempt to talk with them?'

Practice acceptance:

  • Regularly remind yourself that human beings are fallible and not perfectible.
  • Don't retaliate when people do things you dislike.
  • See the world for what it really is (and always has been) - imperfect.
  • Practice being satisfied with compromises and less than perfect solutions to problems.

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

Further reading

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.'