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Flow in the face of adversity

When a difficult situation arises, you can change it, remove yourself or accept it.

Flow in the face of adversity
While hardship will never be avoidable, the avoidance of suffering is, perhaps surprisingly, within our control.

Difficult or unwanted situations invariably arise almost daily as busy professionals seek to balance work, family, friends and other passions. So, the question naturally arises: How should we navigate our more challenging moments?

While we don’t want to pretend to be psychologists or psychiatrists, we have observed some approaches that are useful for dealing with adversity and others that clearly are not. In the latter category are avoidance, blame and rumination.

  1. Avoidance comes in many forms, ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to seemingly more innocuous behaviors that we use to stay busy and fill our minds. All these serve as distractions so that our discomfort with a circumstance has no room to be recognized and fully felt. Does anyone else find themselves checking their phone repeatedly?
  2. Blame is our natural human tendency to ask, “Whose fault is it?” when something bad happens. Finding someone to blame, even if it’s ourselves, gives us some semblance of control. In reality, blame is simply a way for us to discharge discomfort, pain and anger. It has the potential to damage our relationships and, if self-directed, can prevent us from experiencing self-compassion. We’ve both done our fair share of blaming and can attest to its negative impact.
  3. Rumination occurs when our minds drop into a repeating cycle of “story” around whatever we are unhappy about, returning to the same underlying fear or other negative emotion and with no resolution or relief in sight.

The first step to achieving flow in the face of adversity is for us to become aware of when we’re in a state of avoidance, blame or rumination. The next step is to consider three alternative responses that can help us be more adaptable and effective.

Strategies for Adversity: The Three Choices

Eckhart Tolle, author of the best-sellers “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth,” has described three choices that we have in the face of a difficult situation:

  • Change the situation.
  • Remove yourself from the situation.
  • Totally accept (surrender to) the situation.

As Tolle advised in “The Power of Now”: “If you cannot surrender, take action immediately. Speak up or do something to bring about a change in the situation — or remove yourself from it. Take responsibility for your life.”

To resist what is, without taking action to address it or to leave it, is a ticket to guaranteed suffering. While hardship will never be avoidable, the avoidance of suffering is, perhaps surprisingly, within our control.

Making a Change

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. — Harriet Tubman

In many cases, it is within our power to change a difficult circumstance; we don’t know how or are afraid to try. We can be encouraged by moments in history in which individuals exercised great courage in speaking up and taking action in the face of an unacceptable situation, perhaps even risking their lives in doing so. In day-to-day life, though, it is common to find ourselves conflicted regarding the path forward in the face of a difficult situation.

Here are a few questions that might be helpful when trying to find a path toward positive change:

  • What could I say or do that might positively change the situation?
  • Have I fully seen my role in the creation of this situation?
  • If I changed how I’ve been responding to this situation, could that make it easier for myself and others to work toward a more positive outcome?
  • What am I really feeling and what could I say or do to express that feeling in a healthy way?
  • What am I afraid of losing if I try to make a change?

Time to Leave?

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. — Albert Einstein

It is common in our culture to view some endings as bad even though the ending could be the best possible outcome for all involved. As a result, we sometimes cling to the status quo out of fear of losing something. Ironically, this same clinging can create a sense of obligation that leads us to feel trapped and frustrated. In other cases, leaving may not be our best option, but simply recognizing that we genuinely have that option to leave allows us to view a difficult situation from a more positive, productive perspective.

In “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah,” Richard Bach shares a parable about creatures living in a river who spend their entire lives clinging to a rock. When one of them decides to try letting go, the other river rock creatures are shocked and assure him that he will be dashed against other rocks if he were to do something that foolish. Eventually, the one daring soul decides that he has to follow his calling and does let go of the rock, and although he does crash into other rocks along the way, he experiences a life beyond his wildest imagination.

This parable suggests some questions that might be helpful in determining whether it is time to move on:

  • What “rocks” am I clinging to?
  • Am I feeling an internal impulse to move in a different direction?
  • Could I trust that my life will unfold in that new direction if I relax and let the current of life take me there rather trying to force it to happen?
  • Can I trust that the current of life will take me where I was meant to go, even if I have no sense of what that might look like?


Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. — Lao Tzu

Of our three choices — to change, leave or accept a situation — acceptance is often our most powerful option if our goal is to live life in a state of flow. Eckhart Tolle advised: “Accept, then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.”

If it is either not possible or wise to try to leave or change a situation, then resistance to the situation will never be helpful, as it will only build negative emotions and energy that are likely to be harmful to ourselves and possibly others. Questions that might assist on the path to acceptance include:

  • Could I re-envision the situation as if seeing it from the outside, rather than in the middle of the events that are unfolding?
  • How much of what I am feeling is an unavoidable result of what has happened as opposed to my own reaction to what has happened?
  • Can I imagine the possibility that even the worst of situations could carry within them the most precious of gifts?

(For more on the concept of acceptance, read our last article, “When in Doubt, Improvise,” in the February/March 2018 issue of Today’s Veterinary Business.)

Flowing to More Serene Waters

The world’s faiths have wrestled with many of these same concepts of change, moving on and acceptance. Perhaps American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has summed up our options most elegantly with this simple and familiar prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Go With the Flow co-columnist Dr. Jeff Thoren is president of VetPartners and founder of Gifted Leaders, a Phoenix company offering leadership and coaching services. Co-columnist Trey Cutler is a veterinary transaction attorney.