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Developing Flexible Thinking Improves Resilience

Change the way you think about outcomes.

Source: @mcreynoldsphd

Saturday was another gorgeous fall day. We went for a hike in the Shenandoah, stopped for lunch, and greeted some friendly cows along our path. On our way back, we heard the announcement that we had a new President-Elect of the United States. About half the country engaged in a jubilant celebration of the potential for new beginnings, healing, and unity in our nation. The other half of the country expressed disappointment, fear, and anger over the results. Turn back the clock to four years ago, and the tables were turned. In 2016, millions of Americans were excited about the future of our country, while others mourned, feared, and expressed contempt. This blog post isn’t about politics; however, what I have described provides an excellent example of how easy it is to engage in all-or-nothing thinking.

It is tempting to think that there is one outcome that will solve all of our problems and make everything better, whether it’s the election of a new leader, finding that perfect job, or meeting our soulmate. Believing that our lives will change for better or worse depending on certain outcomes can provide us with feelings of relief, happiness, and hope. These emotions are short-lived, however, if the desired outcomes do not happen, or if they do not provide the results that we originally think they will. We then often feel despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and resentment toward others who have gotten their desired outcome. Engaging in all-or-nothing thinking often prevents us from considering alternatives, balancing reason and emotion, or envisioning a future with any other possibilities; thus, we are unprepared when things don’t go our way or circumstances change.

Flexible thinking, in contrast, allows us to have hope in the outcomes we desire, but it also prepares us to create multiple solutions, outcomes, or alternative thoughts. For example, instead of saying, “If I don’t get this job, my career will never advance," one can frame it as, “This job would be a great opportunity to advance my career,” without deciding that this job is the only job that will improve one’s career. There’s still hope even if the job isn’t offered.

It can be difficult to think flexibly, especially when our culture does a great job of engaging in all-or-nothing thinking about what is good, bad, attractive, worthy, or valuable. Thus, we have to train ourselves to think flexibly. Here are some suggestions to consider.

  1. Avoid using words that indicate only one good option or outcome. Examples include words such as never, always, won’t, or can’t. There are certainly instances when it makes sense to use these words, but it’s important to recognize that their regular inclusion in our thought processes may decrease the potential for flexible thinking.
  2. Be careful about placing high value on particular things, people, and situations while denying the potential value of others. Placing certain items, individuals, or outcomes on a pedestal while dismissing or minimizing the value of alternatives runs the risk of leaving you very few acceptable options. The feeling that we have no other options when something doesn’t work out can lead to hopelessness.
  3. Remember that our circumstances are often temporary. Attaching too much significance to specific events and thinking of outcomes as permanent can make us feel trapped. It can decrease our ability to be resilient because we either believe the best of life is behind us or we feel powerless to find ways to improve our situation. Instead, we should acknowledge our feelings while reminding ourselves that situations will change, and we can work to change them.

Recognizing negative thought patterns such as all-or-nothing thinking is an important reflective process. The sooner that we are aware of thought patterns that are preventing us from thinking flexibly, problem-solving, and finding silver linings in our cloudy days, the less likely we are to stay stuck in those patterns indefinitely. We can then see a world of options and possibilities where we can actively engage, rather than being a passive participant in our suffering.

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