On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
Many people find it difficult to be flexible in life. When unexpected situations arise, it is easy to feel frustrated, making you want to lash out. These rigid ways of being prevent you from getting what you want in the long term, increasing frustrations as you dwell on how things are not working the way you want.
Increasing your mental flexibility helps you stay calm in challenging situations, allowing you to cope with difficulties more effectively, and better navigate stressful situations to achieve desired outcomes. So how can you be more flexible in life?
- Accept what you can’t change
- Step back from your thoughts
- Focus on the present
- See the bigger picture
- Live by your values
- Take some risks
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas of mental flexibility.
Accept what you can’t change
The first step to being more mentally flexible is to accept the things that are outside your control. When living rigidly, you are stuck in your head, trying to control everything. Holding onto this sense of control is a false sense of security, causing more frustration.
Getting clear on the things that are outside our control requires a sense of acceptance. As written in the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
When we can accept our limited ability to change an event, we can then let go of the anxieties and frustrations, fueling our need to cling to a false sense of control.
The practice of letting go takes courage and willingness to step into a sense of uncertainty. There is a vulnerability in uncertainty, but there is also serenity and freedom from unproductive thoughts.
Step back from your thoughts
Stepping back from your thoughts allows for more flexibility in life by giving you mental space. Rather than merely reacting to your mental chatter, creating space between your thoughts and actions will enable you to choose more effective ways to adapt to a situation.
For example, suppose a car cuts you off in traffic while speeding. Your initial thought might be that the person is selfish and immoral; therefore, they should be punished. This can lead to putting yourself in unnecessary danger.
Rather than merely reacting, taking a step back from your thoughts allows you to think of alternative scenarios. Perhaps the driver just got the news that a loved one is dying, and they are racing to the hospital. There are infinite possibilities, and we cannot know the “truth” at that exact moment.
We cannot control the other driver, so stepping back from our initial judgments creates the space necessary to move forward effectively.
Focus on the present
Focusing on the past and future takes you away from your life in the present. Being more flexible in life requires developing a sense of present-moment awareness.
One way to do this is to bring your attention to the breath. You might also notice the sensation of your feet on the floor. You can then bring your attention to the sounds around you, curiously listening to the many layers.
Bringing your attention to physical sensations takes you out of your head and into the present since these sensations are occurring in the present moment. You are not thinking about your past breath or anticipating your future breath. It is an ever-present bodily rhythm you can tune into at any moment.
Focusing on the present builds behavioral flexibility since you can more appropriately respond to situational demands. For example, if a car cuts you off while you are lost in thought, you would be less able to respond and adapt to the situation safely.
Focusing on what is going on in the here and now allows you to notice relevant details, especially when things don’t go as expected.
See the bigger picture
It is easy to get caught up in thinking about how we are being perceived, having thoughts like, “How does my hair look? Did I wear the right clothes? Do I fit in?”. This leads to constant social comparison, leading to rigid ways of defining oneself: “I’m a failure, I’m a mess, I’m not enough.”
Rigid self-definitions cut us off from others, leading to rigid ways of being, for self-protection. Thinking you don’t belong causes you to retreat into avoidance patterns, preventing you from meeting your social needs and getting what you want in life.
Seeing the bigger picture gets you out of your head by bringing your attention to what others might be experiencing at that moment. For example, if you’re at a meeting at work, you can see the situation from two different perspectives: your own perspective, or the perspective of others; although the latter takes some imagination.
From your perspective, you may start to wonder what everyone thinks of you, making you try to constantly manage their impression. Instead, try seeing the bigger picture and consider what each person might be experiencing at that moment. What might they be thinking or feeling? What do they want? How do they see one another?
You will likely realize other people are more focused on themselves than you. Seeing this bigger picture allows you to get out of the mental cage of rigid self-definition, leading to constant impression management.
This will allow you to genuinely connect with others, rather than being too preoccupied with yourself.
Live by your values
Getting clear on your values allows you to gain flexibility in life by giving you a sense of direction. Unlike goals, values provide an eternal sense of direction, despite obstacles.
For example, goals are like using a GPS to travel to a specific location. Values are like a compass pointing East. You never completely get to “East.” If an obstacle gets in your way, you can take a temporary detour, but you can adapt, reorienting yourself East when you get past the obstacle.
Values consist of ways of being, consisting of adverbs such as, lovingly, creatively, genuinely, excellently, and charitably. Having a clear understanding of your values allows you to reorient yourself toward what matters whenever you find yourself in a challenging situation, faced with difficult thoughts or painful emotions.
Take some risks
Taking reasonable risks allows you to act on your values, overcoming rigid mental barriers preventing you from moving forward toward a life of meaning and purpose.
Although this requires the courage to step out of old ineffective habits, it also requires creating new habits. Habits, routines, and common behavior patterns are not necessarily rigid unless you continue them after they are no longer useful. The ability to adapt to more effective habits allows you to move forward more efficiently.
Taking risks does not necessarily mean being reckless. Instead, it means gaining the necessary courage to continually step outside your comfort zone, in service of your values, so you can live the life you want.
These tips on being more flexible are based on the evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
The six points shared above are based on the six processes of ACT. If you are a mental health practitioner or just interested in taking a deeper dive into these six areas, see my article, How to Improve Psychological Flexibility.
In that comprehensive article, I delve into each process, sharing metaphors and practical exercises, in addition to sharing the psychological reasons why they work. If you are looking for even more tips and tricks, you can check out my article, How to Stop Living in Your Head.
If you are suffering from prolonged anxious thoughts or depressed moods, it may be helpful to go beyond self-help methods and seek professional support.
Counseling can help by exploring your unique mental barriers, allowing you to develop coping skills to navigate your life flexibly. To learn more, see my article, The Benefits of Counseling.