What Is Flexible Thinking?
Thoughts are just thoughts.
While this concept makes sense at first glance, most of us interpret our thoughts through different lenses, which greatly affects how we feel and behave, often in a not-so-positive way.
Our thoughts (or how we interpret them) shape our personal experience, including our emotions, behaviors, and relationships. Flexible thinking allows us to consider situations from different perspectives. For example, some people tend to see things in black-and-white (e.g., “I can’t make friends”) and are unable to see the gray areas (e.g., “I don’t feel comfortable meeting people in groups, but one-on-one, I do pretty well”). Flexible thinking also means recognizing that our thoughts are not facts and that we can hold our thoughts more lightly (e.g., not being overly attached to a particular thought).
One way to increase flexibility is to engage in mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, renowned leader in mindfulness, teaches us that “mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This concept encourages gentle awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and the environment around us, without judgment or criticism. For example, instead of passing judgment on our thoughts, it can be beneficial to notice them and accept their presence rather than believing they are reality.
Ever have thoughts like the following? “Why did I say that? I am so awkward!” If you were trying to engage in mindfulness, you might say to yourself, “I’m noticing that I’m having the thought, ‘I am so awkward’.” Sometimes we judge ourselves for thinking a certain way (e.g., “I would be less awkward if I would stop thinking so much!”). Mindfulness encourages you to just notice your thoughts rather than judging them. Engaging in this type of thinking may initially sound foreign, but it helps add distance between us and our thoughts. It can be helpful to remember that our thoughts are not always accurate.
The goal of mindfulness is to acknowledge a thought or sensation, then let it go, without becoming stuck. Often our thoughts focus on past or future concerns. Many times, we are not living in the moment. In mindfulness, we draw attention to the present moment, allowing ourselves to let go of these past and future-oriented thoughts.
Barriers to Mindfulness
When you first try mindfulness, you may find it to be difficult or uncomfortable. This discomfort may be due to feeling distracted or simply not wanting to experience a particular emotion or sensation. Most of us have felt sad or worried at some point, and most of us have used strategies such as avoidance or denial to try to “get rid” of these feelings. Unfortunately, these strategies often make us feel worse because we are trying to force ourselves to feel differently. We attempt to stuff our emotions into a box, but it inevitably explodes, causing more pain to ourselves and others.
Willingness encourages us to instead accept and experience an emotion or experience, even a difficult one. It is important to be willing to experience the full range of thoughts or emotions. We can also become aware of our inner strength: our ability to experience a challenging emotion or situation without allowing it to consume us. While no one wants to experience negative thoughts or emotions, these experiences are natural and expectable parts of life.
Although you should try to be open to a range of thoughts, emotions and situations, it is important to still live a life that you value (e.g., attending a club meeting even though you are anxious). In other words, while it is beneficial to allow yourself to experience difficult emotions, this does not translate into isolating yourself for days and ruminating on negative thoughts. Willingness means allowing yourself to feel and think, but to still do what you value (e.g., spending time with friends, studying). Overall, engaging in observation and acknowledgment of emotions and thoughts actually allows us greater freedom to choose our next course of action, as opposed to becoming stuck in the struggle to fight our feelings.
Mindfulness and Willingness in Action
Do you know what a Chinese finger trap is? It is a small tube made of straw or a mesh-like metal with an opening at each end of the tube where you can insert a finger quite easily. Once you place your fingers in the holes they become stuck and the more you try to pull your fingers out, the tighter the tube becomes. Sometimes escaping emotional pain and difficult thoughts is similar to this trap: the harder you try to fight your way out of them, the harder they clamp down on you. Rather than pulling away, if you push in with both fingers you are free from the trap and are able to move free again. Think back to your own experience with difficult emotions and thoughts, what happens when we fight them? Does it become easier or harder for you to live the life you want?
Here’s another example: If your romantic partner ended your relationship, it would be understandable to feel sad, hurt, and angry. You may notice thoughts such as, “I’m unlovable…Something’s wrong with me," or "It’s all their fault.” Getting stuck in these thoughts would only make you feel worse. Attempting to avoid them by distracting yourself with other activities may make you feel better for a little while, but most likely these thoughts and uncomfortable emotions would return. An alternative strategy would be to spend some time engaging in mindfulness. This encourages you to acknowledge and observe the thoughts and feelings you are having without judgment, and then release them. You do not get stuck in the negative self-talk and are more able to fully engage in the present moment. Notice that you are not denying the painful nature of the experience, just allowing yourself to let go of the thoughts.
Why is Flexible Thinking Important?
Engaging in mindfulness and willingness increases our ability to be flexible with our thoughts by encouraging acceptance and a present-focused orientation. Flexible thinking can help us deal with the various challenges associated with college. Utilizing mindfulness and holding thoughts more lightly will reduce one’s experience of stress and anxiety, improve physical health, and increase focus.
What You Can Do:
- Utilize breathing techniques and guided imagery exercises;
- Try mindfulness activities such as, practicing mindfulness exercises (e.g., taking your mind for a walk) and doing daily activities mindfully (e.g., take a mindful walk, listen to music mindfully, mindfully clean your dorm) and;
- Check out the videos and resources below.
Questions for Reflection:
- How do I normally cope with stress?
- Am I often thinking about past events or future concerns?
- Do I think negatively about myself?
- When was the last time I walked across campus without looking at my phone, talking with a friend, or otherwise distracting myself from my surroundings?
Mindfulness Bell Exercise
Refresh Your Mind
Make Stress Your Friend
Thoughts on a Cloud