In the process of letting go, we will lose many things from the past, but we will find ourselves. – Deepak Chopra
Human beings are extraordinarily resilient. When faced with major threatening life events such as a diagnosis of a potentially fatal illness or the death of a close family member, we adapt to our new reality in a way that promotes our well-being.
Throughout a couple of months, I have buried both my parents, liquidated their possessions acquired over a 70-year marriage, finished a college degree, and prepared to move to a new town and start graduate work. My parents passing makes me the elder statesman of my family. The generation above me is all gone. As a result, I feel a little brittle.
Strangely, my losses have been offset by the eldest son’s marriage to an amazing young woman. And the announcement of two new souls entering our family in 2023. But I can’t shake the feeling of being mortal. For me, embracing my mortality is a series of hostile and unwelcome thoughts. I fall back on my many life mantras, like “improvise, adapt and overcome.” I realize I must adapt by constructing a compelling future in my head.
“The Theory of Cognitive Adaptation posited by Shelley E Taylor in 1983 suggests that we cope with threats in our lives by creating a set of positive illusions, which serve to protect our psychological health (Taylor and Brown 1988, 1994). These positively slanted cognitions are not considered delusional or inaccurate but rather represent a sign of mental health, as they create space for hope, personal growth, and flexibility. “
The notion of creating space for hope caught my eye. Hope is a spiritual term. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (KJV Hebrews 11:1)
The cognitive adaptation theory asserts that when individuals experience personal tragedies or setbacks, they respond with adaptive efforts that may enable them to return to or exceed their previous level of psychological health and functioning. The themes around which such adaptations are (1) a search for meaning, (2) an effort to gain mastery, and (3) an attempt to enhance the self.
(1) We search for meaning involves the need to understand why a crisis occurred and what its impact has been in the now and the future. We need a why? This can be a miserable search for causality. The ultimate “why” of adversity may remain permanently obscured from view. The “why” something happens might not make sense for a long time.
(2) Our effort to gain mastery is driven by our beliefs about personal control. Achieving a feeling of control over a threatening event or a difficult situation is avoiding a nasty Deja vu. However, many events or circumstances are out of our control.
Many years ago, a pastor gave me a spiritual maxim as insight into how God, Spirit, Source, or a higher power works. He said if we are aligned with God, “we must do all we can with all we have; then we must let go and let God show up.” That pastor was articulating the letting go to step back, creating a positive space for God to work. Hope is that we are not laboring alone. The creator of the universe will show up to tip the scales in our cause. Mastery becomes our best efforts, followed by the ultimate step of trust in letting go of the outcome.
(3) We attempt to enhance ourselves to restore our self-esteem. When bad things happen, our self-image takes a hit. Self-enhancement occurs when we change the narrative to benefit from the experience personally. Also, we appear to be better off by comparing ourselves with less fortunate others. Perspective heals our self-esteem issues.
Let’s recap; adverse life events can shake one’s world. Still, psychologically healthy, resilient humans can create positive illusions to recreate a sense of order, balance, and well-being. Taylor’s theory of cognitive adaptation depends on the ability to sustain and modify illusions (i.e., unrealistic optimism, exaggerated perceptions of control, and self-aggrandizement) that buffer against threats but also against possible future setbacks. In a nutshell, we become optimists in the face of adversity.
Until next time. Travel safe.