Remember being a bendy pretzel? Remember being young and having the ability to contort oneself into any shape? Ah, those were the days! The times in our lives when our bones were rubber and our joints seemed to work like well oiled swivels. We were pliable and physically flexible. And the flexibility didn’t stop at the end of our finger tips either, we were mentally flexible too. We would look at the world with wonder and examine everything around us with new eyes. We were less judgmental, and more open to let our imagination run wild with, “what-if’s”. We didn’t already “know everything”, so we were able to take in information from our own perspective, and our perspective would rapidly change as our flexible bodies bent and twisted this way and that.
That slide sure looked fun from a distance, and yet the closer we would get the taller and more intimidating the structure became in our young eyes. The excitement and anticipation that had us tugging our parents as quick as we could across the park, may well have morphed into apprehension and hesitation as we finally found ourselves standing in the shadow of the death slide.
You see, perception and perspective are like that. You physically and mentally react to what you see, from where you see it. This is exactly how it is supposed to be, and is very helpful in life’s big picture. The ability to see oneself in relation to the dangers around them, was and is an important skill in the evolutionary process.
Early man who didn’t recognize that the small predator in the distance is quickly becoming larger and larger in his field of view, probably wasn’t around long enough to pass on his genetic material.
The ability to see, process and respond to what you take in, is a highly desirable skill.
But then we grow up. We inevitably grow taller, and with the added inches we start seeing things from a new perspective. During this time we also tend to grow emotionally, and socially; this growth brings with it a desire to fit in with our peers. We find ourselves examining the world and those in it; searching for those who happen to see things the way we do. We don’t necessarily seek them out on purpose, but something innate within us, draws us along the path…seeking, searching.. and looking for validation of our own perspective, by looking for it in others.
This growing up changes us in so much more than just the physical sense, and unfortunately sometimes this change is irreversible, where we not only gain a new perspective, we can also end up losing our prior perspective. Over time we start to forget what it was like to “see” what we had “seen” before. We become rigid in our thinking, we confidently state that “we know”, and over time we can only see things from where we are. This rigidity soon becomes the norm; we end up losing our flexibility…we end up growing over confident in our unique perspective as we grow upwards.
Just as flexibility is necessary for a healthy body, the mind can benefit greatly from maintaining it’s flexibility. Now, I am not talking about scientific brain studies and how flexible, elastic thinking can help keep neural pathways open and connected…although there are probably plenty of studies out there to this point. I am talking about keeping the mind flexible in a more basic way. The ability to keep an open mind, and to be able to see things from multiple perspectives is crucial in maintaining mental flexibility. And unlike the workouts and exercises needed to maintain physical flexibility, which if over-done can end up injuring or causing trauma to the overused body parts, the exercises and workouts needed to maintain mental flexibility can only bring about a broadened perspective.
So how exactly does one exercise mental flexibility? You have probably noticed that the market is flooded with all these “train your brain” apps, programs and regiments, and you may have even tried a few yourself. I have tried some of those apps and programs, but have found that they don’t necessarily target or exercise my ability to be open-minded in my daily life. I have found that to effectively maintain my mental flexibility, I need to practice responding to situations in my daily life. Now, I really have no fool-proof solution, but I have found that by following the three basic steps below, over time I have ended up increasing my mental range of motion.
Please note, that the three steps outlined below are the exercises that have worked for me; this is just my experience and your mileage my vary. (if you even dare to try) 😉
Step 1: Identify the symptoms of rigid thinking, and begin recognizing them as symptoms.
The symptoms that I have noticed in myself are: Making snap judgements, feeling indignation, feeling defensive, being angry or having hurt feelings
Step 2: At the first sign of any of the above symptoms, make a decision to choose an appropriate response (not a reaction)
Here is how I have transformed my prior reactions into appropriate responses:
Prior Reaction —-> Appropriate Response
Sighing —–> Take a deep breath
Rolling my eyes ——> Smile with my eyes and maintain eye contact
Urge to interrupt —-> Re-frame my thoughts to ask a clarifying question instead of thinking of a rebuttal
Feeling defensive —-> Relax into my confidence and actively look for a new perspective.
Getting emotional (feeling hurt or angry) —-> Acknowledge that there is something deeper (and most likely unrelated) driving these emotions, and take a break from the situation to gain some perspective.
Step 3: Recognize that experiences change you and help you grow – without experiences (the good and the bad) we would still be looking at the world and those in it from our original perspective…that of an inexperienced child.
We seem to have less problems facing and embracing positive experiences, and we readily allow them into our lives to help us expand our perspective. Where we run into a lot of friction, is with those experiences that we are uncomfortable with; the ones that elicit the sighs and eye rolls, or cause us to feel defensive and argumentative. Yet these are equally important to our growth and in some cases are the only exercises that truly work when attempting to increase our mental flexibility. When we recognize that all experiences have value, we remove the negative that surrounds those uncomfortable ones, and we begin to rid ourselves of our rigid thought processes and our narrow perspectives.
Will these three steps work overnight like a magic pill? No, of course not.
But, I have to admit that I am enjoying the moments of my life on a much deeper level now that I have identified the symptoms of my rigid thinking, learned to re-frame my reactions into responses, and have a new understanding of the value of all my experiences.
I may never get back to being as pliable, bendy, and physically flexible as I was as a child, however, I am definitely working my way back to looking at the world with wonder, examining everything around me with new eyes, becoming less judgmental, and becoming more open to the “what-if’s” as I openly accept the fact that there is no way for me to already “know everything”.
~~ just wanted to express some of the deeper thoughts that have been occupying my air space! 😉
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