Adaptive Competence—or Getting Back on the Horse

By Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC

 

There is a term being bandied about in psychological circles—and in the media—called “adaptive competence.” National Public Radio (NPR) did a story recently on the secrets of aging well, and this high-falutin’ term dominated the story. It seems that individuals with adaptive competence, which basically means “rolling with the punches” of life, live longer (by some seven years, according to the research). They are also more productive and happy than those who lack it. What they’re talking about, ultimately, is resilience.

When I was a little girl growing up in Memphis, my mother schooled me in this concept. Her words were: “You just have to get back up on the horse again.” When my first boyfriend dumped me, when a favorite teacher humiliated me, when my best friend teased me about my flat chest in mixed company, at 13—I learned, eventually, to get back up, dust myself off and move on. Without knowing it, I taught myself the cognitive-behavioral technique of “acting as if,” which is just another way of saying, “Fake it till you make it.” I learned, sometimes the hard way, that ultimately my positive feelings, my self-esteem, had to come from within. Fortunately, I had a loving and stable family and a great deal of support. Not everyone does.

Indeed, lapses in resilience are what bring clients into therapists’ offices week after week. Clients who cannot shake off disappointment, rejection, a bad day, a medical issue, human mistakes, social and work difficulties, things beyond their control, and other normal life events are struggling with “adaptive competence.” Their thought pattern has become negative. However, the fact that they are seeking therapy is a positive sign, and speaks of their innate, human drive toward resilience. The great psychiatrist Carl Rogers believed that we are all capable of resilience; often, we just need someone to support us in accessing a strength that is already there.

Sometimes, a good friend or mentor can fill the bill; other times, it takes therapy.

Obviously, there are differences among us; some people are just born more resilient. Others, who have experienced severe early trauma, are more vulnerable. But many of us have simply never learned positive cognitive habits that could help us shake off negative experiences and debilitating thoughts.

I think about “adaptive competence” most often when observing my mother, who is 95 and going strong. She lives independently in a comfortable retirement facility, where she deliberately chose an apartment on the third floor to encourage herself, energy permitting, to take the stairs. My mother is still completely engaged in the world—seeing friends and family, playing bridge four times a week, exercising, traveling, reading good literature, volunteering for the Altar Guild at the chapel, hosting cocktail parties—and happy to be alive. Her life, more than any other, illustrates the positive side of Erik Erikson’s final life stage in his famous eight-stage model of human development: Integrity vs Despair. When one looks back on his life, is it with integrity that he has embraced life and contributed to the lives of others? Or is it with despair, at having not courageously addressed his existential imperative? Mother, it seems, has chosen to thrive.