It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves. - Carl Jung
Flexibility in life, both physical and mental, can serve us well during life's inevitable periods of change, uncertainty and flux. Our ability to be fluid and adaptable, and to bend and shape ourselves according to whatever situations arise, can provide us with a sense of calm and openness when things don't go according to plan, and an abiding confidence in our skills to handle whatever comes our way. Training our minds to remain open, agile, and flexible rather than fixed, rigid, and stuck, can aid in decreasing feelings of anxiety, depression and low self-confidence. In fact the more mental flexibility we cultivate, the more trust in our abilities to handle future surprises we develop, and the less anxiety we have about what may or may not come our way.
Mental flexibility is an important skill in life that can be practiced, honed and developed over time. Mental flexibility is the ability to see situations and people from multiple perspectives and viewpoints, to see the broad context of situations including many different facets of complex situations, to view the flip side of negative situations or traits within ourselves, and to update old ways of viewing things based on new or more relevant information. Developing these important skills can lead to a more balanced, complete and accurate view of life, people and situations, and a decrease in anxiety and other negative emotions. Often anxiety and depression can stem from an inability to see the complete picture and a tendency to focus on too narrow, too out-dated or too distorted information. If we cultivate the ability to increase our mental flexibility, we can relax in knowing we perceive fully and accurately rather than in an unhelpful or negative way.
I have detailed below some useful tips for increasing your mental flexibility. Awareness is the first step to developing mental flexibility, and learning to identity, hone and flex our mental muscles can be incredibly empowering and tremendously fun too. Enjoy this window into a more flexible, more open and more fluid mental world within. Now lets get mentally flexible! :)
Concave vs. Convex
Draw or imagine a concave line. If you were to turn this drawing upside down, the line would now be convex. Viewing the line as either concave or convex depends entirely on what perspective you take. If one perspective of the line exists, so does the other, equally valid but opposite perspective.
Often when we are feeling anxious, we are holding a negative perspective of a situation, a person, or of ourselves. A great way to practice mental flexibility when negative views dominate our thoughts is to imagine the opposite perspective to the negative one we might be thinking. For example, if you are feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and telling yourself you are unable to cope, practice switching to the opposite perspective and telling yourself you are strong, have survived difficult times in the past and can handle the situation. Physically drawing a convex/concave line can be a helpful visual aid in this practice of perspective flipping.
The ability to influence and shift negative thoughts, feelings and emotions truly depends on what perspective you take. By practicing switching perspectives to the positive, you can decrease anxious and depressed thoughts and train your mind to hold the positive perspective more often and with greater ease.
Mind reading occurs if we have a personal belief about a situation or ourselves, and incorrectly assume that other people share that belief with us too. Assumptions that other people's behaviours or thoughts are the same as our own can lead us to inaccurate views that may not reflect reality, and can close us off to noticing or investigating alternative evidence for what we believe. The following is a personal story to illustrate this principle:
It was a beautiful, uncharacteristically hot and sunny day in London. I was sitting outdoors at a cafe enjoying a lovely and delicious lunch in the sunshine. There was a table of 3 seated next to me. Eventually they got up from their table to leave, but had not completely finished their food.
Shortly after, a disgruntled woman and her friend exited the restaurant. The woman glanced at my neighbours' unfinished food and announced, "Well they obviously did not like their food either!" She continued to discuss how terrible she thought the food was with her friend as they walked away.
Just moments later, a waiter came to my table to clear my plate. Seeing too their unfinished food, he turned to look at the hot, beaming sun and remarked: "You know I've noticed when it's cold outside, everyone clears their plates. When it's really hot outside though, people always lose their appetite and never finish their meal!"
I love this story because it is a perfect example of mind reading in action. The woman was unhappy with her food and assumed the others were equally displeased; however they could have simply been overheated and not very hungry! Mind reading and assumptions can lead to inaccurate perceptions about the beliefs and feelings of others. Next time you catch yourself mind reading, if possible ask for clarity from others rather than make assumptions.
Picking and Choosing
A diamond cannot sparkle if it only has one facet. In order for it to shine brightly, it needs to have many different facets that work together interdependently to create a brilliant and dazzling whole. It is often an unconscious belief that human traits or facets can exist in isolation, and we can pick and choose the ones we like and discard the ones we don't. On closer inspection however, it is possible to notice that our traits too are interrelated: negative traits often correspond with a positive facet, and positive traits can correspond with a negative facet. Choosing to dislike or remove one trait altogether therefore would not be possible without affecting the whole.
For example, maybe you have a friend who is incredibly fun and free spirited, but can be a little unreliable or late. Maybe you have a job that pays well and is very stimulating, but is quite demanding and stressful. Or maybe you tend to worry about the little things too much, but are also incredibly conscientious, thorough and have a skilful eye for detail.
Often anxiety or depression can be triggered by viewing our perceived negative facets, faults or flaws too harshly or by focusing on them as exclusively bad. While addressing and working on weak points is very beneficial, attempting to pick and choose which aspects of ourselves we love, accept and appreciate can be a very limiting way of viewing ourselves and can miss the finer nuance and complexity of how our various traits manifest, relate and intersect. Developing the flexibility to view the overall whole of ourselves and our traits, and cultivating an attitude of acceptance, compassion and appreciation for the many different facets of our various traits, can lead to a more holistic and balanced view of ourselves and an increase in our feelings of self-worth, self-love and self-acceptance.
Taking things personally is by definition only viewing things from one perspective, namely your own! To cultivate mental flexibility, try adopting the perspectives of those around you. Jump mentally into their shoes, and try to see things from their eyes and viewpoint.
This ability to examine and inhabit the perspectives of others is characteristic of dialectical thinking. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines dialectical thinking as, "a method of examining and discussing opposing ideas in order to find the truth." Not taking things personally is a critical component of dialectical thinking, as it is not possible to stay flexible and see the whole truth or reality of a situation if you are viewing things from your one perspective alone.
Not taking things personally is a useful and effective mental flexibility tool that helps and empowers you to foster constructive, balanced and satisfying relationships with others, and decreases feelings of anxiety or depression that stem from believing that the actions of others are personally directed at you.
Clinging to Old Beliefs
A critical skill in mental flexibility is the ability to update beliefs in the face of new, contrasting and changing information. Clinging to old beliefs despite receiving updated and contradictory evidence can leave you with inaccurate and out-dated views of yourself, people and situations.
If you think of old beliefs like out of date clothing still hanging in your closet, clinging to those old beliefs leaves no room for new, more current, better fitting and more useful beliefs to squeeze their way in!
If new information contradicts your existing beliefs, allow this new information to be filtered in rather than exclude it in order to keep existing beliefs intact. Increase your mental flexibility by keeping an open and flexible mind to information, both new and old, and open up space in your mind for fresh, balanced, more accurate and more up-to-date perspectives to find their way in.
Negative self-labelling can have a very profound and real influence on how we act, feel and perceive ourselves. Labels are much more powerful than we realise, and can trigger a convincing and disadvantageous "looping effect" within ourselves.
The looping effect describes how humans are conscious of how they are classified and tend to align their outward behaviours with their conscious classifications. This effect kicks in when we are given a label or classification by ourselves or by others, and then alter and fix our behaviours to fit and conform to that label.
To view yourself flexibly, examine any negative labels you may be applying to yourself. Do you label yourself Anxious? Angry? Incapable? Any of these labels will trigger within you a looping effect in which you may continue to perpetuate the negative and fixed label by behaving in ways that conform to it. Be mindful of when you are labelling yourself negatively, pause and consciously remove the label. Remind yourself that you are not static or fixed, but are profoundly capable of tremendous growth and transformation. Remove negative self-labels and begin to open up your mind to the powerful evolving entity that you are, filled with wonderful flexibilities, contradictions, impressive shape-shifting abilities and endless possibilities!
Victim Orientation vs. Creator Orientation
We all have the ability to be creators in our own lives. However we sometimes consciously or unconsciously limit ourselves and mentally cast ourselves as victims instead. This victim role is an unhelpful role to adopt, because it constricts us in a powerless dynamic known as The Drama Triangle (Karpman, 1968), where we are forced to look outside of ourselves for a rescuer to save us from our problems and a perpetrator to blame our problems onto. The victim perspective and corresponding triangle dynamic is especially inhibiting, because it places the locus of control outside of ourselves rather than within, and limits our personal power to enact change and manifest positive outcomes in our own lives.
A Victim Orientation is one that focuses on problems and focuses on what is not wanted in life. This perspective overwhelms and disempowers us, and leads us to look outside to other people or external situations as either the cause (Perpetrator) or the saviour (Rescuer) to our problems. A Creator Orientation however focuses on desires and what is wanted in life. It places us squarely in the centre stage as Directors in our own lives, and empowers us to create conscious ideas and visions of what we desire, and to use our own personal power to take baby steps towards bringing these desires and visions to fruition.
Practice mental flexibility by switching consciously into a Creator role and use the looping effect to your benefit by adopting this very positive and pro-active label. We all possess within ourselves a powerful creative energy and an ability to aim our minds on our desires and visions rather than on our problems. This perspective shift can be life changing and lead to long-term, positive outcomes, and provide us with tremendous power and agency to create satisfaction and enjoyment in our own lives
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. - Albert Einstein
I hope you enjoyed these tips for increasing and flexing your mental muscle! Mental flexibility can be improved significantly over time with awareness, training and steady practice. Increasing mental flexibility opens a door to a broad and expansive world of fresh ideas, new ways of viewing things, profound feelings of deep appreciation and a wonderfully fluid, adaptable and carefree outlook on life. Start training your mind towards its full potential for flexibility, adaptability and change, and enjoy the boundless and unlimited freedom, peace of mind, personal power, satisfaction and creativity that a wide-open and flexible mind truly brings.