The Ability to Adapt and the Power of Letting Go

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here .

How is the ability to adapt important for personal growth and mental health? How does this ability relate to the power of letting go?

Healthy navigation of life requires an ability to adapt. In The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck calls this balance, which is a component of discipline. It allows us to remain flexible, moderating our behaviors when beneficial. It also requires sacrifices, and we would do well to embrace the power of letting go in order to grow.

Keep reading to learn how the ability to adapt is an important part of mental well-being.

Balance Is the Ability to Adapt

Even discipline requires discipline, and that’s where balancing comes in. Balance is the component of discipline that allows us to remain pliant and adaptable, rather than rigid with extreme expectations of ourselves or others. Balance looks like:

  • Having the courage to be truthful, but also knowing when it is appropriate to withhold honesty—and having the ability to adapt accordingly.
  • Having the willingness to be responsible for yourself, but also knowing the difference between what you are and are not truly responsible for.
  • Having the discipline and forethought to delay gratification, but also knowing when to fully live in the moment—and having the ability to adapt accordingly.

For example, anger is a survival mechanism. We experience anger when we sense someone might be trying to harm or control us. Without it, we would let others walk all over us. However, it’s not always appropriate to express anger. Whoever you perceive to be a threat may not actually be a threat, or, it may not be wise to confront someone who is a threat. In either case, you need to have the ability to adapt your expression of anger. Sometimes it’s necessary to express it loudly and in the moment. Sometimes it’s best to express it after careful thought and consideration, or in a calm, measured way.

The Flexible Response System

It is the responsibility of your flexible response system to determine the best balance for anger, as well as all other emotions and behaviors. We all have difficulty with our flexible response system. Most therapy includes some attempt to improve the efficacy of this process. The more mired in mental illness the patient is, the more difficult it is to refine their flexible response system. 

Consider someone who is deeply mentally ill and has a very black and white flexible response system (all or nothing). This person might struggle to discern boundaries. So, if they determine a response to something, it becomes the default response, even when it would cause less suffering to deviate. For example, maybe they had a bad experience in childhood with parents taking things from their room without permission. Perhaps in adulthood, they decide anyone who wants to come into their room is not trustworthy, or they simply don’t allow anyone in their room at all. They are not recognizing that some people warrant a response of trust, and some don’t.

The Power of Letting Go

True mental wellness requires the ability to adapt, finding a balance between contrasting objectives or needs. To establish that kind of balance you need to make sacrifices. This is what makes balancing a discipline. Giving things up is painful, but the loss of balance is more painful than the pain of giving things up. In life, you must give up all kinds of things to maintain balance, such as old belief systems or old personality traits, or you will not be able to grow on your life journey. Often, people choose not to grow rather than experience the pain of giving something up. They don’t appreciate the power of letting go.

Major things that need to be given up during a successful journey of spiritual evolution:

  • The security of being a child
  • Overblown ideas of your parents
  • The freedom of having no commitments
  • The fruits of youth 
  • Control of your kids
  • The clinging to impermanent senses of power 
  • The identity of the self and the experience of being alive 

The last on the list may seem impossible to accept, like a terrible twist of fate that makes our lives meaningless and without purpose, because western culture is terrified of death, considering it a cruel ending to the sacred light of life. In reality, giving up the attachment to self and honoring the reality of death allow you to experience the most vibrant life possible. Death gives life its meaning. Giving up the self is also required in order to experience genuine love. During our lives, we are learning how to live, but we are also, in many ways, learning how to die.

Giving up the self is generally a gradual, lifelong process, but you can use a tool called bracketing as a way to practice. Bracketing involves suspending your “self” temporarily in order to integrate new knowledge. This, just as all letting go, requires an ability to adapt.

A Note on Growth and Depression

For serious growth to take place, much of the old version of you has to be let go of, or “given up.” The unconscious mind tends to know this before the conscious does. Therefore, you might seek therapy because of depression and not realize that at least part of the old self is already in the process of being given up. The choice to attend therapy is demonstrative of that giving up (you are “giving up” on “being ok”). 

Depression is unhealthy when it becomes chronic. This can occur if the “giving up” process is interrupted by an event or stagnates for some other reason. Often when this occurs, depression does not resolve.

Those who develop the ability to adapt and embrace the power of letting go will experience well-being and growth far better than those who remain rigid with their extreme expectations of themselves and others.

The Ability to Adapt and the Power of Letting Go

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Road Less Traveled summary :

  • The four key elements in the path to enlightenment
  • The importance of spiritual competence in relation to mental health
  • How you can face challenges and grow through hardship

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.