Is it possible to respond flexibly to changing circumstances and yet to remain authentically ourselves…or is it?

One of the situations in which balance is important is when we are in a situation where the expected behavior – the behavior that is considered the norm – is not what we are used to doing. Suddenly we find ourselves pressured to act differently from what we consider normal. No matter whether the pressure is overt, or more subtle, the desire to fit in is a powerful one. Perhaps there is nothing "wrong" with what is expected – it is just a matter of allowing ourselves to experiment. On the other hand, sometimes we may not know how to behave. Or, perhaps the norm is something that we see as beyond our boundaries in terms of morality. Yet… yet… we still want to fit in, to feel as though we belong. So what are we to do? Do we flex? Or do we decide that to be true to our own authentic self we will clearly "not belong?" How do we decide?

A few examples…

• A vacation trip lands us in a place where the food, the dress, and the social interactions are all very different from what we usually enjoy. Do we confirm or not?
• How about a business trip under those same circumstances of difference?
• How is a student, used to dressing and thinking like a student, going to manage a first job interview? A first job?
• A mature age adult, after many years of marriage, when divorced returns to the world of dating. What is to be expected of her or him?
• As a non-user of illegal drugs you suddenly discover that some new friends, whose company you greatly enjoy, take their drug use – and yours - for granted. Even if you firmly do not use, sooner or later you might find yourself in a car with someone who is "just stopping over to pick up some stuff." And the trend continues.

We can assume that, no matter how strange or exotic, unexpected food choices on vacation are unlikely to kill us, and if our clothing does not fit the environment, no doubt we can pick up something more appropriate. Or we can remain as we always have been, insist on eating what we have always eaten, and dress as we dress at home – regardless of whether this earns us the sobriquet of "ugly American" (or Brit, or Kiwi, or whatever is the equivalent term for people from your home country). As always, the choice is ours.

Can we be ourselves, standing tall and proud like the oak tree, and yet still responding appropriately in different situations, like the bamboo that sways in the wind so as to survive changing circumstances? Some people believe the two are incompatible, that personal authenticity involves reacting in the same way regardless of what is happening around us, and that flexibility means that we betray our personal authenticity. Others simply shrug and say, "When in Rome, do as the Romans," and swim with the flow of whatever tide or current they encounter. However, I believe that the two are not incompatible. It is possible to respond flexibly to changing environments and yet to remain authentically ourselves. We just have to decide how far to flex.

In earthquake regions, one way that tall buildings are built to survive major quakes is by including flexibility in the design. Some actually sway in the wind, and so have the 'give' needed to survive sudden jolts. It is the very rigid buildings that are more likely to crumble. The secret is that beneath that flexibility the building must have a very deep and solid foundation.

People have foundations, too – personal foundations, and each is different, and can only become deep and strong by being examined. We cannot build a firm foundation on an unexamined life.

Having a solid foundation means knowing what we are about. We know what we believe in, what our values are, and just how broad or narrow they may be. Clearly we begin the process of building our own foundation when we absorb the actions, and guess at the motivations, of those around us early in our lives. Those clues will serve us until we learn to think for ourselves, and to question our assumptions. At that point the need for an "examined life" kicks in. Is a political view, or a moral compass, based on reality or on someone's unexamined bias? Do we agree? Do we need to learn more before we decide?

The most difficult assumptions to question are those created before we were able to use language. When we can remember who told us that the sky is blue, or that doing a specific thing is wrong, or right, it is usually relatively easy to question that source as we grow older, and, sometimes, to discover that our parents (or other sources) did not know everything. However, when we learned something before memory and language were within our power, it is more difficult to question because, to us, certain things "just are." Some physical laws, it is true, just are. However, many opinions and values just may be. We need to dig deep to question their validity if we are to lead an examined life, which is the prerequisite to having a deep and solid foundation.
Once we have that, we can usually judge how far our building can sway without toppling.

When we have built a solid personal foundation--something on which most coaches.

work intensely for ourselves, and with our clients when they are willing--then we know just what we believe in, and what our values are. With a foundation that is truly solid, adjusting to circumstances need not lead us away from our core values. Then, and only then, can we know just how far we are able to flex without coming off our foundation.
To use another analogy, visualize a good ice-skater who can lean and twist in an extraordinary number of positions while still gliding, perfectly balanced, in the planned direction. So can we adjust our behavior to our circumstances without straying away from our own center of balance. We can adjust our responses to external events, confident that we will still be maintaining our balance and meeting our own standards.

Some of us may need to be pushed, or persuaded, almost to the point of toppling, of falling away from who we are, before we see what is happening. This happens most often when the individual is either very unsure of self, lacking confidence in his or her own decisions, or, sadly, when we fall in love with someone who is happy to make use of our trust to try to drag us into their own world. We can hope that our own common sense will alert us before the "topple point" is reached, so that we may regain our normal balance. Then is the time for yet another re-examination of what we are about and what we want for ourselves. Sometimes we can do that alone. Sometimes it helps to have a trusted ally to ask us the questions we hesitate to ask ourselves.

Wishing you good balance, always – and remember, stay fabulous!

More of Coach Diana Gardner Robinson's work can be found at her website,

Author's Bio: 

Born and raised in England, Diana Gardner Robinson left school at sixteen and came to the United States in her twenties. She subsequently completed several graduate degrees in psychology and became a Certified Alcohol & Substance Abuse Counselor in New York State. While working in the addictions field she also took two years of training as a professional life coach and opened her coaching business in 1997. In addition to her coaching, she has been an addictions counselor and now teaches future addictions counselors. Her life experience has been wide, and this enables her to coach around issues of life balance and a wide range of stumbling blocks that, if we are not in balance, may trip us up or block our way. Visit her website for more information