For a healthy mind, think flexibly
We all know it’s important to keep our bodies flexible, but did you also know flexibility is key to healthy thinking?
People who think flexibly view the world more accurately and are better equipped to solve problems laterally, explains psychologist Sharon Draper.
However, she says it’s “quite common” to lapse into unhelpful thinking processes. One such style is ‘black and white thinking’ – a rigid form of thinking where people see things in extremes; as being either all good, or all bad.
The problem with such thinking, says Draper, is that it creates unrealistic expectations – both of ourselves, and how we believe things should be.
For example, if we make a mistake we might then chide ourselves for having done the wrong thing, or for being ‘bad’.
And, when something goes wrong, we catapult ourselves towards all the potential negative consequences without considering the alternative possibility: that the situation might not be as bad as we thought.
She says style of thinking can also lead to “emotional distress, disappointment and possibly self-beration”.
We’re more likely to lapse into such thinking when we’re snowed under or stressed out, says Ben Newell, professor of Cognitive Psychology and deputy head of the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales and author of Straight Choices – The Psychology of Decision Making.
He says at such times (when we have a “high cognitive load”), we’re less likely to really examine other possible thoughts.
So, instead of searching for information that either supports or negates our thoughts, we only seek out information that confirms them. In doing so, we also fail to look for evidence that might disprove them.
This “confirmation bias” then allows us to stay stuck in our rigid mode of thinking.
The good news is we can improve our ability to think more flexibly.
Draper says the first step is to acknowledge that ‘black and white’ thoughts are unhelpful.
“We need to remind ourselves that the way we think needs to integrate both good and bad, never just one or the other.”
She says the best way to do this is to “unpack the thought”. That is, think through your thought process while questioning its validity.
To put that in practical terms, she recommends starting by describing the situation to yourself.
Next, identify your thoughts and ask yourself whether they’re helpful.
Are they focused on helping you find a solution? Or are they stuck on judgements, weighing you down with feelings like guilt?
Lastly, evaluate whether there is evidence to support your thoughts.
(Is what you’re thinking really true? Or could there be shades of grey you’re not considering?)
By questioning your thoughts, Draper says, “You can transform an unrealistic thought into a more realistic one”. This will then help you see the situation more accurately.
Another way to think more flexibly is to simply consider the opposite thought to be true, says Professor Newell.
To help ‘convince’ yourself of that argument, he recommends looking for information that proves the alternative way of thinking, while forcing yourself to consider reasons why your initial thought might be wrong.
“There is a good deal of evidence in the experimental literature showing that employing this simple strategy improves our decisions,” he says.
While it’s good to be aware of ‘black and white’ thinking, Draper warns not to berate yourself if you find yourself lapsing into such thoughts.
After all, it takes time to change your way of thinking. Besides, she says, simply noticing your thoughts have become rigid is a healthy step in the right direction.
When you practice flexible thinking, you can move beyond just ‘black and white’ to view the world as it really is: vibrant, in all shades of colour.
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