The Art of Flexible Thinking

How to have flexible thinking
Flexible Thinking

The Dalai Lama’s idea of letting gossip pass us by can be a hard pill to swallow for Westerners who are accustomed to tackling issues head-on. How can we just sit back and accept that somebody is talking about us behind our backs? How are we supposed to deal with the feelings of hurt and anger that inevitably boil up to the surface?

The good news is that it isn’t really as simple as sitting back and letting people walk all over you. Dr Alice Boyles, who writes for Psychology Today, writes about the importance of flexible thinking. In essence, this means questioning and challenging the way you think about everyday situations.

Imagine the following situation: You start a new job, ready to please, and you’re led to your new desk. You turn to say hello to the girl at the desk next to you. She turns to you, her face full of contempt, and mutters “hi”. How do you take it? Do you ignore it and carry on, or do you assume that she hates you and that you’re going to have to struggle every day to win her over?

Sometimes, the way we perceive the world can be, well, a little warped

Before jumping to conclusions about how somebody else feels, stop, and check-in with yourself. Could it be that your mood is influencing the way you’re seeing things? For example, on the first day of a new job, you’re bound to be feeling nervous, perhaps worrying about what people will think of you. At times, your mood can color the way you see the world.

Flexible thinking is not just about being optimistic or pessimistic. According to Dr Boyles, a flexible thinker will consider both optimistic and pessimistic explanations for people’s behaviour. Maybe she didn’t seem very friendly because she didn’t like the look of you, OR maybe she was just in a bad mood that morning. Consider all the options before automatically assuming the worst.

The same approach goes for any situation. Haven’t heard back from that job you applied for? Maybe they’ve decided not to hire you, but maybe they need a lot of time to make a decision. Your date or partner might not have called you back for a number of reasons – if you always assume the worst, playing out terrible scenarios in your head, then you’re going to cause yourself a lot of unnecessary pain.

  • Do you tend to always assume the worst? Try this example. You’re waiting for a date to show up, and she’s 20 minutes late. What thoughts are going through your head?
  • Do you start to think about horrible things that could have happened to her, or perhaps start to think that she doesn’t really like you? This might extend to pessimistic explanations such as feeling unlovable or convincing yourself that you’ll always be alone. What other explanations might exist instead?

Another key part of flexible thinking is to recognise worries and anxieties for what they are, rather than acting as if they are true. Do you often find thoughts going through your head such as “There’s no way I’ll get this job” or “I’m not good enough“?

Psychologists warn of the dangers of rumination, which is dwelling on negative thoughts rather than on a solution. Typical ruminating thoughts include focusing on how tired, alone or numb you feel, over-analysing recent events to work out why you feel so bad, asking “what have I done to deserve this?”, thinking about your flaws and mistakes or replaying recent situations and wishing they had gone better. Ruminative thoughts are linked with depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000).

Instead of listening to that voice and letting it stop you from taking steps forward, try to take a step back and decide if that thought is useful. For example, worry could be a warning that you feel unprepared for a job interview and act as a motivator to help you to research the company, practice your answers and perform better.

On the other hand, if you let the worry grow, playing out the worst possible outcome, it will only cause you unnecessary stress and anxiety, and could then lead to you performing less well than you would have otherwise done had you taken positive action to prepare sample interview answers.

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