In the past few years of blogging I’ve written plenty about break ups, the upheaval and uncertainty that can follow in their wake, and I’ve optimistically chimed over and over again, “Things change. Something will happen.” Those phrases are meant to settle some fears and angst about the flux of life, the unexpected, perhaps even the undesirable, and make it at least more acceptable, more manageable, more palatable. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is my sense that, yes, things change and something will happen.

In response to such changes, I’ve previously referred to the Taoist notion of wu-wei, or effortless action. Simply put, when life is likened to a river with all of its rapids, eddies, and currents, I’ve strongly accepted the wisdom in “going with the flow,” and I’ve applied this insight to my life, especially my relationships. However, thanks to a handful of conversations with a handful of people in the past week, I’ve decided to nuance my appreciation of going with the flow, perhaps in multiple arenas of life, but especially in relationships. Because sometimes, and in some situations, going with the flow is just too easy.

As beings who grow, change, and can even voluntarily grow and change, going with the flow is too easy when it simply involves falling back into old habits, relying on old patterns, and reanimating old ways of doing things. If one is not careful, one can interpret “go with the flow” to mean that one not challenge, push, or try at all. In other words, not trying can also be considered as that which comes most naturally, the most effortless action.

If you were born an exemplar of good human behavior and that good behavior comes very easily to you, you’re amazing, go on with that flow, but this post is not for you. If, on the other hand, you are like almost every other person and have gone through any number of difficult, harsh, or even hurtful experiences throughout your life, then there’s a solid chance that you’ve developed defensive habits, patterns, and ways of doing things that were responses to such pain and hurt, stress and struggle. Such defensive mechanisms are often crucially important at various points in our lives and work to protect us when times get tough. Eventually, like the ol’ fight or flight response, we may not even have to think about such knee-jerk responses because they move us so “naturally.”

Unfortunately, when doing what comes most naturally to us amounts to employing these built up defensive mechanisms in situations that don’t pose imminent threats to our survival and well-being, such are the very habits and patterns that can actually hinder our ability to grow in healthier, happier ways. That is to say, when the river gets a bit turbulent, we already know how to fight or take flight; those things come easily to us.

What we might need to do then, perhaps without actually knowing yet how to do it, is resist the tendency to do what comes most naturally, to not go with the flow.

Here’s an example from the abovementioned conversations: Imagine that one encounters a fork in the relationship river where one can either continue working on the relationship or end it. If one repeats after me, “Well, things always change. Something will happen,” then there might be little incentive to work, to stay, to put in effort to continue with what one has right now. In fact, one might be so astute to know that, even in light of such a big change as the end of a relationship, he or she will ultimately be okay and something else will happen. Of course this is true. If you are alive right now and well enough to tell, then you’ve made it through the changes. What a happy thing to do deduce.

But then again, if one is apt to float away, move on, and go with the flow in that sense – if ending a relationship and leaving to go to the next thing is what comes very easily – then maybe this shouldn’t be the preferred option if what one seeks is growth.

To carry on with the river metaphor, maybe there are times when it is appropriate to paddle, to tread, perhaps even to the point of building up new muscles (which always requires some degree of pain and effort but eventually, as one gets stronger, using those muscles gets easier), to fight the current of our defenses. Maybe there are times when it is better for us, and for those with whom we frequently interact, to not go with the flow of what comes most naturally to us. Because some times, some times, if we’re not careful, we can too easily be hurtful, careless jerks to one another.

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by Cori Wong PhD