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Flexible Thinking Part 1: Make and keep friends, romantic partners, and your job

What is Flexible Thinking?

Running a social skills group for kids ages 7-11 has taught me a lot about the benefits of flexible thinking. Flexible thinking in kids produces turn taking, transitioning smoothly to new activities, and the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations.

Flexible thinking in adults also enables mental, emotional, and behavioral adaptability. It is the ability to consider situations from multiple perspectives, include context clues to inform decision making, manage rising emotional responses in appropriate ways, problem solve, and balance and prioritize competing desires and goals. Flexible thinking also allows for spontaneity in our romantic relationships that can increase excitement and deepen connection.

Flexible thinking looks like letting someone else pick the restaurant for dinner, cancelling plans to be with a friend or spouse who’s had a difficult day, finding solutions to problems instead of ruminating on the endless escalating spiral of “what if…” scenarios, truly listening to understand what others are saying, and not telling your boss what you really think of them when they take credit for your work during the company meeting.

Inflexible or rigid thinking in adults is often manifest in all or nothing (Black and White) perspectives and doesn’t allow for nuances and mitigating circumstances. Doing something because, “That’s how we have always done it” is an example of rigid thinking. Other examples include not listening to other’s ideas, struggling to consider the feelings and experiences of others, and obliviousness to opportunities around us because we are locked into our self-appointed expectations, rules or ideas about how something is “supposed to be.”

There is a popular Huffington Post article (“Reasons my son is crying will crack you up!”) that is unknowingly highlighting inflexible and rigid thinking. In each of these pictures, the child is having an emotional meltdown because they are stuck on one thought and the associated feeling so deeply, they become overwhelmed, abandon all reason and rebuff efforts to console them; for example, “He wouldn’t fit through the doggy door. Note the open-door right beside him.” With toddlers and adults alike, inflexible thinking can lead to unhelpful and stressful situations.

As a caution, let’s be clear that not all rigid thinking is unhelpful. There are areas in life that being inflexible is necessary and protective. With regards to physical safety and personal and emotional boundaries, it is advantageous to be rigid.

Application

We all have times where we utilize both flexible and rigid thinking, the important part is to identify where we, as adults, teens or kids, could benefit from more flexible thinking.

  • Is there an issue with your friends or spouse that keeps coming up, how could you change your perspective or response in the situation to increase connection with that person?
  • What could be a different way to address the issue? What about that issue is the real problem?
  • Could any of these same questions be applied to work relationships and circumstances?

You need to be a pipe cleaner.

Here is a visual way to conceptualize flexible thinking. During one of my first weeks running the aforementioned social skills group I came across an activity highlighting the importance of and difference between flexible and rigid thinking using a popsicle stick, a pipe cleaner and a piece of yarn.

  • A popsicle stick is sturdy but rigid. Attempts to bend the popsicle stick typically result in it breaking. Not helpful. 
  • Pipe cleaners are soft and fuzzy on the outside, come in multiple colors, bend easily, hold their shape and have sturdy wire in the middle: the creative options are endless. They are so adaptable they can bend to whatever the situation requires while maintaining their inner core (read: personal values and goals).
  • A piece of yarn can barely hold any shape at all, it’s too flexible. It can’t stand up for itself or hold a boundary and can be easily manipulated with no resistance.

Thinking like a pipe cleaner allows flexibility, adjusting, shifting, adapting and changing as needed without compromising our values. What areas in your life are you like a pipe cleaner? Are there some relationships, situations or events where you are more like a popsicle stick? Which of these scenarios or people would benefit from you being more like a pipe cleaner?

Look for Flexible Thinking Part 2: Mental Health, where I will review how flexible thinking impacts and effects our mental health.

Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC

Reference:

Halloran, J. (2015, February 9). Teaching flexibility to kids. https://www.encourageplay.com/blog/being-flexible

Khoo, I. (2015, April 29). ‘Reasons my son is crying’ will crack you up. Huffington Post Canada. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/04/29/toddlers-crying_n_7033472.html

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Avoid These 4 Behaviors to Improve Communication In Your Life and Relationships

canstockphoto14934251Dr. John Gottman, Author of “7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.”, wrote about what he calls the “4 horseman of the apocalypse”. He outlined how, if unaddressed, these behaviors can erode trust and security in a relationship. Look out for them in your communications.

Blame/Criticism– Blame and criticism increase defensiveness and derail problem solving.

Contempt– Use non-judgmental language. Contemptuous language like, “You’re so lazy! You never empty the dishwasher” will get you nowhere fast. Try instead, “I feel frustrated that I am emptying the dishwasher so frequently. I would like us to share this responsibility” The latter is a reasonable request. Try to label the behavior rather than the person.

Defensiveness– Defensiveness is usually a response to feeling blamed or criticized. Take ownership for what part you played in the situation and be open to hearing the reasonable request. Acknowledge what the other person is saying and the feelings they are expressing (validate where they are coming from). Address their request/concern rather than justify your behavior.

Stonewalling– Stonewalling is refusing to participate fully in the conversation or avoiding the discomfort. Instead, commit to hearing the person out. Stonewalling means you will never hear their reasonable request and therefore not be able to problem solve. If you feel overwhelmed, ask to pause the conversation for a short period of time and commit to returning when you are calmer.

For more information check out the link below or any of John Gottman’s books.

https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/

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7 Ways to Thrive When Dealing With Unexpected Changes

canstockphoto17430095Let’s face it – life is not easy!!!  We all face an onslaught of daily challenges that can tax us to the limit.  Whether you’re a student struggling to balance an academic load while trying to figure out how to maintain some semblance of a social life and simultaneously coming up with the financial resources to pay for that advanced education or if you’re an empty nester struggling to find your sense of identity now that you are no longer known as “Tommy’s mom,” life is fraught with challenge (and these are just a two of the vast number of possible scenarios that  you may be facing!!)

As daunting as all this difficulty may be, there is very good news: it is through facing these very challenges that we grow; these challenges are the very opportunities that grant us the knowledge, experience, maturity and wisdom that makes life meaningful.   They deepen us as individuals and broaden our perspective – IF we can effectively rise to the occasion.

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Anger Management Series – Part 3

Here are a few more tips for handling anger. As mentioned, process and handle your anger, don’t discount it and push it away.

Relaxation:

  • Try deep breathing exercises.
  • Repeat a phrase to relax your self like ‘take it easy’ or ‘you’re ok’ to calm yourself down.
  • Use imagery and go to your ‘happy or quiet place’
  • Exercise!

Cognitive Restructuring

  • Change the way you think.
  • Be more rational – “It’s the end of the world” can change to “It’s frustrating but understandable. It’s not the end of the world and overreacting never really fixes anything.”
  • Avoid phrases that start or end with never, always, or demand.
  • Logic can defeat your anger.

Problem Solving

  • Not all anger is displaced.
  • Don’t focus on the solution, focus on the process.

Improved Communication

  • Don’t act on your conclusions – they might be wrong. Clarify what’s going on by asking and using a conversation.
  • Listen to what’s going on.
  • Try not to fight back

Use Humor

  • Humor can diffuse rage quickly.

Change the Environment

  • Give yourself a break!
  • Don’t avoid confrontation but don’t put yourself in frustrating situations either.

Use Appropriate Timing for Conversations

  • Typically places like in front of the TV or when people are busy aren’t ideal conversation places.
  • If you have a confrontation situation then try planning a better place to talk where you can both focus on yourself.

Learn Assertiveness Training

  • Take a class on being more assertive rather than confrontational.
  • See a counselor for assertiveness training.

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