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Adjusting vs. Adapting

Understanding the difference between adjusting and adapting

Adjusting - A few tweaks and you're on your way. Minor changes to accommodate to minor changes, while most of your life and circumstances remain the same.

Adapting - Something major has happened, and you won't be able to survive unless you make major changes within yourself, and across most areas of your life.

Here are a few comparisons:

  • When your teenager goes off to college v. when your teenager passes away
  • When your department changes v. when your company endures a hostile takeover
  • When you husband takes up fitness and moves a treadmill into the living room v. when your husband takes a mistress and moves her into your place at the lake

    ADJUSTING - A chameleon adjusts. When it finds itself on a green leaf, it turns green. When it moves to a brown twig, it turns brown. It's a minor adjustment, changing the color of its skin.

    ADAPTING - A tadpole adapts. In order to be able to live on dry land, it must lose its tail and gills, grow legs and start using lungs. It must learn to breathe air, not water.

    ADJUSTING - Mary had an adjustment to make. She had moved across town. She had to learn a new route to work, meet some new neighbors, familiarize herself with the location of hospitals, grocery stores and gas stations, and get used to an electric stove instead of a gas stove.

    ADAPTING - Letitia moved from the US to Russia. She had to learn a new culture and a new language.

    ADJUSTMENT REQUIRED - Ben got a divorce. Though he had not been dating her, he had fallen back in love with his high school sweetheart. When he divorced, he started dating his sweetheart, remained in the same home, had custody of his two children, kept the same job, the place at the lake, and maintained his strong network of friendships.

    ADAPTATION REQUIRED - Tina's husband divorced her. He took most of the couple's assets and left her with all the debts, so she was forced to file bankruptcy. Because of the social set they moved in, she lost many friends. At the same time her last child left for college, she got downsized, her mother died, and she developed breast cancer.

    ADJUSTING - You know you can do it. You just may not want to.

    ADAPTING - You have a sense you don't have what it takes to cope with it.
Here is the key point - Understanding the changes that adaptation will require helps you through the transition, which is often more like a metamorphosis. It can feel like having to grow wings! When you face a situation requiring ADJUSTING, you think, "Things have changed." When you face a situation requiring ADAPTING, you think, "I will never be the same again."


Much more of you is required in an adaptation. Major life changes will require you to leave major things behind, and learn new ways, sometimes new ways of "being". It can be as challenging as learning to breathe air instead of water. An adaptation requires strong emotional intelligence skills, which can be learned.

Here are a couple of related distinctions:
  • Your in-laws speak only Russian vs. Your in-laws speak with a heavy Southern drawl.
  • Your wife gives birth to quintuplets vs. You have a new baby boy.

About the author:

Susan Dunn, MA, Emotional Intelligence Coach & Consultant, is the author of ?Midlife Dating Manual for Women". She offers coaching, internet courses, teleclasses and ebooks around emotional intelligence and trains and certifies EQ coaches. You can visit her at www.susandunn.cc.

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