Mental Flexibility

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Mental flexibility

One of our superpowers. 

| By Camilo Sáenz-Moncaleano, PhD, Sports Psychology | March 10, 2020 |


Flexibility is one of our superpowers and it usually goes unnoticed. If we continue using the analogy of comparing mental training to physical training, working on our flexibility is one of the things that most people enjoy the least and even try to avoid. Whenever we are determined to improve our fitness (physical and mental), we usually start by working on increasing our endurance (energy) and strength levels, but every physical trainer or person knowledgeable in sport sciences will tell you that working on increasing flexibility is just as important, and sometimes even more important than energy and strength.

Flexibility is usually defined as “the quality of bending easily without breaking”. That is exactly what our muscles, tendons and joints do: they have the capability to adapt to different forces, mold to the different circumstances (often quite extreme) and go back to the initial state (or as close as possible to it) without breaking or suffering permanent damage. But we do not only use the word flexibility to describe our body’s malleable properties; we also use it to talk about the ability to be easily modified and even to describe someone’s willingness to change or compromise.

This is exactly what we want to talk about when we say that the mind has the ability to be highly flexible and that we should work proactively on increasing it. In psychology, flexibility is traditionally defined as the capability to adopt different perspectives, change one’s thinking, and mentally adapt to changing environments. Therefore, when we are training our mental flexibility, we are preparing our mind to “go with the flow” and we are cultivating a mindset in which our thought patterns are flexible in order to deal with life’s inevitable changes. It can also help us adapt to novel scenarios as they arise, whether you are starting a new job or a new chapter in your life, or just dealing with the ever-changing stream of information that we seem to be bombarded with in our daily lives. In short, having a greater mental flexibility is of paramount importance in our journey to grow as individuals and to get along better with others.

Mental flexibility is not a one-and-done ability; it is constantly fluctuating, and there are varying degrees of flexibility. We may even have different levels of flexibility throughout the day (usually less flexible by the end of the day when we are more tired), and it may change depending on the situation. And, of course, it varies from person to person. We have all witnessed instances in which two people react completely different to the same situation. One may be more open and hopeful towards it, while another person may be stuck in a negative way of thinking or behaving. In other words, if one is more flexible, one can adapt to the new situation and accomplish it in a faster and emotionally less costly manner.

Getting stuck in a thought or behavior pattern is one of the key indicators that we need to work with in regards to our mental flexibility, and I know this is a tough job. Our mind’s default mode is wondering and when it engages, which unfortunately is quite often, it usually goes towards negative automatic behaviors, what we call bad habits. This default mode predisposes people to become stubborn, excessive perfectionists, get into conflicts easily for being constantly oppositional, get upset easily with things that do not go their way, and frequently worry about the future or mourn the past. In the more extreme cases, the lack of mental flexibility leads to addictions, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and eating disorders. All of them having the common denominator of having problems with letting go thoughts or behaviors.

Although this sounds like a dire situation and may lead to serious psychological issues that could in turn affect our productivity and enjoyment of life, the bright side of mental flexibility is that it can be improved by using some simple strategies that we can incorporate in our day-to-day lives. We are not bound to rigid and biased automatic thought and behavior patterns, we can work on becoming more flexible and adjust easier to change, while at the same time learning valuable skills such as being more resilient, creativity, openness, feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable, and building confidence to step out of our comfort zone.

As mentioned in our previous post, unfortunately this type of simple techniques and trainings and not commonly offered. Some people are fortunate to develop them while facing different situations in their life, while others unfortunately get stuck in un-healthy rigid patterns that lead to high levels of constant worry, distress and overall difficulties in their personal and professional life. If you are interested in becoming more flexible and explore your life in a new and fascinating way, you have come to the right place.

– Published on March 10, 2020

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