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  • Writer's pictureAnnie Berbert

Psychological flexibility: Stretching the mind’s ability to bend in new directions

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

Finding the possibility in possibilitarianism.

As a grade schooler, I bent over to touch my toes while the pediatrician pontificated about the innate flexibility of children. Then he paused and looked at me.

“Hmm,” was all he remarked, awkwardly correcting his former statement from most children to some children.

It was true that my peers could do splits all three ways and touch their noses to their knees whereas I looked like a misshapen tree trying to reach my pinky toe with the tip of my pinky finger. Unfortunately for me, that was not the only arena in which I was biologically impaired. My mind muscle — I learned the hard way — was no different than my leg muscles; it was neither the most pliable nor the most elastic. Throughout my life, it has taken significant effort for me to stretch my mind (and my hamstrings), but it’s been worth it.

Psychological lingo calls this psychological flexibility which sounds fancy and complex but really just refers to our ability to loosen the rigidity of our thoughts. The mind is more bendy than we sometimes realize, and stretching our perspectives can open new worlds of opportunity up to us. Here’s how:

An inflexible mind resists uncomfortable situations. A flexible mind accepts the discomfort, staying present and mindful with it.

There are multiple examples of mind over matter where humans have triumphed over pain — from the athlete who perseveres through tough training regimes to break world records to the mother in labor who learns to lean into the pain and breathe rather than tense up and resist her contractions. The same can occur with emotional pain. We can suppress or resist the angst inside us, or we can persevere through it, pay attention to it, sit with it, lean into it. The more the mind learns to endure and stretch through discomfort, the stronger and more pliable its emotional muscle becomes.

An inflexible mind sticks to the familiarity of habit and routine when new opportunities arrive. A flexible mind adapts to new opportunities and innovates ways to change.

Have you ever seen a young child refuse to draw a picture or complete a school worksheet because they didn’t have the right color of crayon? The issue here is not the child’s talent or ability, it’s the child’s mental flexibility. Rather than adapt and use the colors that are available — or ask for markers or colored pencils — the child is sticking to the familiarity and comfort of a favorite color. When we dig our heels in and choose what is familiar over what is new or available, we are exhibiting mental inflexibility.

Athletes often change up their exercise regimen rather than sticking to the routine. If they did the same exercise and stretches every time, they would limit their opportunities for physical enhancement. Just as there are multiple muscles in the body to be worked, there are multiple muscles in the mind to be worked: creativity, personal values, critical thinking, wonder, abstract reasoning, and empathy, to name only a few. Changing up our mental focus, exercise, and routines — adapting to and accepting new opportunities rather than staying in a fixed mindset — enhances mental flexibility.

An inflexible mind sees one or two ways to respond to a problem or challenge. A flexible mind recognizes there are at least five possible solutions to every challenge.

A common fallacy is the false dilemma or false dichotomy fallacy which makes the options available feel limited. This fallacy is sometimes called the “either-or” fallacy because it often presents two options as if they are the only options. For example, asking, “Do you want the red hat or the blue hat?” This scenario excludes all other colors from the decision. It is very easy for our minds to spool into either-or scenarios and lose sight of additional possibilities. An inflexible mind is often drawn to limited options because fewer possibilities can make a decision feel simpler, easier. But fewer possibilities can also complicate or stifle opportunities.

Let’s say that a child needs to be dropped off at school for an evening event, and both you and your partner have to work. An inflexible mind might think, “If my partner can’t do it, I’ll have to miss my meeting to do it, or our child will have to miss the event.” Feeling trapped by this situation could lead to frustration with yourself, your partner, your child, the school, or your work and colleagues. It could limit opportunities for you and your child.

A flexible mind, however, might think, “Is there another child that my child could carpool with? Could I ask my neighbor, friend, or family to help? Could my child stay after school for an hour or two and study until the event?” All or none of those options may be possible, but the flexible mind will seek out multiple solutions until the best one can be decided on, and in so doing, it will feel more empowered. A flexible mind is also open to making the impossible possible, recognizing that every creation was first formed by thought.

A familiar quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland highlights the difference between inflexible and flexible thinking. Interestingly (and creatively), the protagonist is the one focused only on what she perceives as possible, and the antagonist is the one open to the impossible.

“There’s no use trying,” [Alice] said, “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen, “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I concede that learning to be more mentally flexible is going to be a life-long endeavor for me. When things don’t work out as I hoped or planned, it’s easy to feel fatalistic about my future or options. But I know that striving to be a possibilitarian has given me hope that eventually my seemingly unattainable dreams will be attainable. And who knows, maybe one day — with enough stretching, ingenuity, and patience — I’ll finally land those elusive middle splits.

Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash

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