This page gives some information on practising flexible thinking, to help us keep our balance in these challenging times 🙂
The sections on this page include:
- The impact of changing, uncertain and stressful times, as in the current coronavirus situation.
- The fundamental reality of change.
- Taking a dialectical perspective.
- Techniques to support flexible thinking.
- Recognising thinking errors in times of stress and uncertainty.
Changing, uncertain and stressful times can knock us off our normal balance and mastery that we have in our everyday lives. Unfortunately the current coronavirus situation is delivering this risk to all of us in the present moment.
In the face of this, we can practise being flexible, adaptive and responsive, using these skills to face the unfamiliar events that arise in this type of situation. Learning different responses, or to change in a time of stress can be challenging, but the key is to practise them regularly to build your strength and capacity in using them.
A fundamental aspect of reality is change. We can fully accept this as reality, and work with this, in the “right here, right now” or present moment. We can mindfully accept reality as it occurs, using flexible thinking to help us focus on what we need, and what is right for each of us in the current moment, for our well-being. This approach protects us from the increased stresses and the potential for more problems due to not being able to accept the changes that are happening around us. It protects us from responding in ways that are not helpful for our well-being.
ACTIVITIES TO HELP US RESPOND ADAPTIVELY TO CHANGE. Activities like Dance, Music (as in playing an instrument or singing), Tai-Chi, Yoga and other Martial Arts encourage these flexible, adaptive and responsive skills, and enable us to work with the fundamental reality of change and transition.
Taking a Dialectical Perspective
To work with reality as it is, there is an ongoing rebalancing between acceptance and change. A way to strengthen flexible thinking within this context is through the use of a dialectical world view. Dialectics is the concept of the contradiction of opposites, and their continual resolution.
A DIALECTICAL WORLD-VIEW: Using a dialectical perspective develops our ability to create flexible, creative solutions and responses to problem situations. It enables us to effectively adjust our responses as situations evolve. Cognitive development determines how we make sense of the world, how much we are aware of, how fluidly, systemically, and comprehensively we think, and how much complexity we can manage. We can progress from reactive to logical to dialectic thinking, which sees the world as dynamic and constantly changing, rather than static.
DIALECTICAL THINKING: In dialectical thinking, concepts may change if interrelated ideas and facts change, leading to new knowledge. Dialectical thinking is therefore concerned with fundamental processes of change and the dynamic relationships through which this change occurs. Our thinking processes can be extending through dialectical thinking, which acknowledges the multifaceted nature of “truth”, and encourages us to see many different interpretations in regards to events.
A SYNERGISTIC APPROACH: Through dialectical thinking, a synergistic approach to thinking, where the sum is greater than its parts, can be supported, and new solutions and cognitions arise. More complex thinking patterns are supported, with an individual learning about the many contexts and systems surrounding the present moment. This enables apparent contradictions to be the starting points for more in-depth thought and acts as a change agent.
Techniques to support flexible thinking in the reality of change
Experience with awareness your feelings, your thoughts, and sensations directly without the use of words. The ability to observe yourself requires an ability to step back from yourself.
STEPPING BACK: This process of stepping back can also be seen as like turning a silver bowl filled with icing sugar upside down, an action which empties any of the contents out of it. In stepping back we keep turning the silver bowl upside down, so nothing can be carried. It is a way to re-orient to the present moment.
KEEP AN ACTIVE STANCE: Keeping the silver bowl empty in this way is an active stance. It is turned upside down. This action allows you to not get stuck. Preoccupation, rumination, and distraction are some of the ways people get stuck. So we use our awareness, through the active stance of stepping back, to both see and observe our feelings, our thoughts and sensations.
NON-ATTACHMENT TO THOUGHTS: This approach enables us to observe what is going on within ourselves in any situation. By stepping back from our thoughts and feelings we can release our attachment to these mental phenomena. The goal here is to reflect on your thinking and feeling, independent of the circumstances, observing what is going on in one’s mind like watching clouds drift through the sky.
IMAGE WORK ACTIVITY. Build the image outlined in this activity and hold it strongly in your mind. Use the steps below.
A. Visualise the silver bowl filled with icing sugar.
B. Turn the bowl upside down in your mind, and imagine the icing sugar falling slowly toward the floor, almost in slow motion. In the shafts of sunlight whilst you are watching this happen, you can see the icing sugar particles floating in the air, and the stillness of the space they are falling within.
C. Spend time in this space, this visualisation. Visualise the sun streaming in.
D. Then bring yourself back by gently reflecting on the following point: Who is doing the watching? Hold the question in your mind for a couple of minutes. Then let it go.
E. Bring yourself gently back by focusing on your feet, and feeling the floor underneath you. Press down on to the floor with your feet, and walk slowly around your room, feeling the sensation of the floor for each step.
F. Reflect upon your experiences in this activity. Notice any physical sensations, feelings or thoughts that you had. Observe yourself. Using a reflective journal in these types of activities deepens your journey. Use any mark makings you want to represent your experiences.
This is the act of putting words on experience and experience into words. It is the ability to put verbal labels to (internal and external) events, which is essential for self-control. Putting words on our experiences is one of the first steps towards this. Describing is thinking with words and includes your internal dialogue as well as verbal and written expression.
This sort of talking to yourself helps you become focused. It is a way to overcome distractions because you learn to redirect your thinking to your here-and-now experience. As you practice the skill of “describe”, you will become clearer about what you are doing and what you want to do. Time spent describing is a good investment.
3. TAKE A NON-JUDGEMENTAL STANCE.
Practise seeing things from non-polarized perspectives. Flexibility of thinking is characterized by the ability to entertain other points of view. Instead of applying polarized extremes, actively find a balance through taking an active dialectical stance. This is applying the concept of the contradiction of opposites, and their continual resolution.
Thinking errors or cognitions which may “filter” or “shape”
our thoughts, feelings and behaviours
in stressful times
In stressful times our cognitions can strongly “filter” or “shape” our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This cognitive filtering acts as a barrier to being able to respond effectively in the “here and now”. These types of cognitions tend to reinforce negative thinking and emotions. Thinking errors cloud our ability to see clearly.
RECOGNISING THINKING ERRORS; The information below gives us the “heads up” on them, so we can recognise them for what they are. It’s important in times of stress that we scan ourselves regularly for these, so we can become aware of them, can recognise and name them. Once we’ve named them we can let go of them. We can drop them. Like turning a silver bowl upside down and letting the icing sugar fall to the floor, we can let go of our thoughts, and empty our mind. Use the OBSERVE technique in point 1, in the section above, that you have already been introduced to support flexible thinking. Take a step back and reorient yourself to the present moment.
Thinking error examples:
1. All-or-nothing thinking. Viewing situations as one extreme or another instead of on a continuum.
2. Catastrophizing. Predicting only negative outcomes for the future.
3. Disqualifying or discounting the positive. Telling yourself that the good things that happen to you don’t count.
4. Emotional reasoning. Letting one’s feeling about something overrule facts to the contrary.
5. Labelling. Giving someone or something a label without finding out more about it/them.
6. Magnification/minimization. Emphasizing the negative or playing down the positive of a situation.
7. Mental filter/tunnel vision. Placing all one’s attention on, or seeing only, the negatives of a situation.
8. Mind reading. Believing you know what others are thinking.
9. Overgeneralization. Making an overall negative conclusion beyond the current situation.
10. Personalization. Thinking the negative behaviour of others has something to do with you.
11. “Should” and “must” statements. Having a concrete idea of how people should behave.
Here is a leaflet that gives a visual overview of these “thinking errors”: Thinking Errors Leaflet