How to train yourself to think more flexibly
“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful, it’s ordinary, mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heart-breaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful and ordinary Life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful. “ — L.R. Knost
I love this quote’s honesty about life. In a lifetime, it really is impossible to completely avoid emotional pain, and still experience loving and intimate relationships. If we really want to be known, loved and appreciated, we have to be in a state where we can take a few risks and put some emotional ‘skin’ in the game.
But… we sure can learn to minimize additional or prolonged suffering by becoming more flexible thinkers. So today, I want share a simple practice for developing mental flexibility — which is a skill that can greatly enhance your life experience by training you to be more receptive to possibility.
By becoming a more flexible thinker you will..
become a better problem-solver
develop under-used areas of your brain
see possibility where you may have missed it before
experience less suffering when unexpected things do happen
all without sacrificing what matters most to you
When my husband was first starting his photography business, there were times when the uncertainty that comes with anything new, would agitate those old pathways of self-doubt. A client would email interest in his work and ask for more information. My husband would promptly respond. But then days went by with no reply. And that’s when the voices of doubt and rigid thinking would chime in: “my work just isn’t good enough, that’s why they lost interest” said the demoralizing, conditioned voice.
So reading that, the self-doubt pattern may be fairly obvious. But how is this an example of rigid thinking? Because at the time, he measured the quality of his work by only one variable > someone’s immediate response. And because of that rigid thinking, he was suffering far more than the experience warranted.
The brutal truth that we all sort of know at heart, is that we may be able to influence other people’s behavior, but we surely can’t control it. There are so many possible contributors to why people behave in certain ways and why things happen in our lives and in the world. And we know this logically. So if we hold tightly to our own definitions of how things ‘should unfold’ or how people ‘should act’, then when we have uncomfortable experiences…
we end up exacerbating the natural discomfort that comes from the unexpected. And…
We block ourselves from seeing other possibility — both in situations and people.
How to develop it
So, returning to my husband’s example, we decided to sort of play a ‘game’ of seeing how many different reasons we could come up with, that might explain why someone may not purchase a print from him right now. But.. we started with a very important first step — we removed resistance by acknowledging his initial thought: Okay, maybe it was possible. Maybe his work wasn’t good enough and that’s why they hadn’t responded. AND… what else is also possible? And we started the list:
1. Maybe they loved his work so much, they were thinking of how to save money and purchase more than one at a later date.
2. Maybe they had something come up personally that took financial priority.
3. Maybe this time of week they get hit with dozens of emails and are working through them…he’ll hear from the person in a few days.
4. Maybe they won the lottery and so thrilled they decided to buy a new Ferrari instead (the reasons can also be silly and unlikely, it adds to the fun)
5. They were decorating a living room and the colors didn’t quite match
Regardless if any of these possibilities was accurate or not, the practice of going through this process is what..
strengthens mental flexibility,
diffuses the power of the ONE initial, habitual thought and
improves your ability to see more possibility.
Rigid thinking is often about trying to feel ‘safe’.
Mental INflexibility (also called rigid or dualistic thinking) can create a sense of ‘safety’ as we try to navigate a beautifully complex, yet highly unpredictable world. Hanging onto definitions of how something should look, should be, or how someone should respond…acts sort of like a ‘map’..for our daily lives, hopefully telling what to expect as we move through it. It makes sense in some cases, that we have some fairly predictable patterns — humans need some predictability in moderate amounts to manage our time, and interact with each other. It’s why we have infrastructure like bus systems, airports and daily ‘routines’. But how tightly we cling to, or rely on those timelines, definitions and expectations, is what can add unnecessary additional suffering when they fail. Flights get cancelled. Buses break down. People run late. And as we all know…our lives can turn out quite differently than we imagined, kids can choose different life paths than we had hoped for them, and… not everyone buys your photography. So, we can’t avoid the emotional pain in our life when things don’t turn out exactly as hoped. But we can learn to reduce the secondary suffering that comes from dwelling on the past, harsh judgment, or holding ourselves, or others… to rigid definitions and inflexible thinking.
So in summary, whether unexpected, uncomfortable or emotionally painful experiences wreck us, throw us temporarily off balance or simply cause us to pause and reflect…the intensity and duration of our response is in part dependent on how tightly we cling to our beliefs and definitions about ourselves, and what life is ‘supposed to’ look and be like.
Why we can struggle with mental flexibility
Well, by now you know that in part, our brains are designed to create and hang onto energy-efficient patterns. Even rigid, dualistic thinking is a pattern the brain has efficiently automated.
And from last month’s class on How to Get Your Needs Met, you also understand that mental rigidity or ‘set definitions’ can sometimes help us feel calm, and therefore ‘safe’ in our bodies. That is, as long as people and the outside world would simply match or adhere to those definitions. Sometimes they do. But more often they don’t. Or maybe they do for a while. Then people naturally evolve, grow and change. And if you’re still hanging onto a firm belief about how that person ‘should be’, because you’re afraid to learn a new way of interacting or don’t want to make the effort… then maybe the real problem is the way you currently think, and not necessarily the way the person has changed. So in a way, if we’re inflexible or rigid thinkers, we may be self-imposing limitations on our life experience.
So personally, I recommend getting your brain and body moderated, centered and calm as its default way of operating. Why? Because it’s when our inner state is inconsistent, unreliable and less predictable… that we become more reliant on rigid definitions and consistent outcomes in our outer world. But if we can source our sense of safety from within, everything changes. When we ourselves become more predictable, moderate and consistent, then the times when people and our outside world are not? Well…it still may hurt. But it doesn’t throw us off balance as much, as frequently or for as long. In other words, with a moderated emotional response that leaves us feeling calm and safe most of the time.. we have higher resilience to the ‘unexpected’ in our outer world, we can pivot and adapt more easily, others imperfections draw more compassion than agitation.
It’s an inside — outside balancing game.
As we learned in the Whole-Brain Relationships course, our brains actually rely on a mix of both Certainty and Uncertainty, Calm and Stimulus in order to stay strong. Where you source each one — from your inner world or your outer world, is up to you. But considering the long list of daily experiences that remind us that we can’t consistently predict and control anything but ourselves.. I recommend making the effort to create that needed sense of calm, safety and confidence from within. It will completely change how you experience life and how you relate to other people. And becoming mentally flexible is one of the skills that can help you get there.
The message here is our “map” is not “the territory”. How we each currently think and view the world is a conditioned habit and not the only way to think or view the world. And you can change or add to your ‘map’ at any time without compromising what you value. Learning to see, or at least look for possibility, is what leads to creative, intentional living. And it’s what increases our chances for experiencing fulfillment and loving relationships.
And if you’re someone who has a brain that likes to “catastrophize” as an avoidance coping mechanism (if I anticipate the worst possible outcome in advance, then I won’t be as disappointed..an attempt to avoid or minimize pain) ..well then this tool will really help you dilute the power of a coping strategy that can leave you in a negative ‘funk’ far too often.
Try these 2 steps next time you catch yourself repeating a thought that is not helping you or your mood:
1. Acknowledge the first thought. “Yes, that may be possible”
2. And then start the mental practice. “AND.. what else is also possible? Then list at least 6 more possibilities — and make sure to list more positives than negatives. That’s it.
You get ‘points’ for every reason you come up with, and ‘extra credit’ if can come up with a few that makes you smile or laugh.
If you want some good topics to practice on,
Ask yourself how tightly do you cling to, the definitions of the following:
- What your life is supposed to look like? What else could it look like that you haven’t considered?
- What a ‘good’ marriage is supposed to look like? How else could a ‘good’ marriage be defined? What are other ways to measure a ‘great/ successful relationship’ that you may be overlooking because you’re so stuck on your current, more rigid definition?
- What being a ‘good parent’ or a ‘good spouse’ is defined? How else could they each be defined?
I’m not saying you have agree with, or subscribe to anything you come up with. The exercise is the consideration of possibility.
But depending on how attached you are to your current definitions and how rigid your current ‘thinking’ is, you could be causing yourself some unnecessary, additional suffering. And that my friend, is something you do have the ability to change.
If you’d like to learn how to sustainably moderate your emotional response, so you can start improving your relationships, begin by learning how your brain and body work in the foundational class Whole-Brain Relationships — what you need to know to feel more calm, confident and connected at work AND in love.
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