Albert Einstein once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again…expecting different results”. It seems as though what he is talking about here is psychological rigidity! And yes, it may not lead to insanity but it certainly leads to an increase in suffering and distress. Psychological rigidity means responding to the same experience in a predictable manner despite the consequences whether short term or long term. It means behaving in an auto-pilot mode, avoiding turbulence at all costs, even if it means missing out on what’s important to us and truly connecting with those around us.
One thing that all of my clients have in common is that by the time they commence therapy they have spent years trying to ‘fix the problem’ by: moving away from emotional challenges, experientially avoiding thoughts, feelings and memories by trying to control, push away, fight off and suppress internal experiences. By trying to eliminate feelings of anxiety, vulnerability, discomfort, inadequacy and thoughts of not being good enough. However, despite responding in the same way the problem still persists.
Research has demonstrated that attempts to control our internal / private experiences leads to an ironic intensification of experiences that we are trying to avoid. Why does this happen when controlling thoughts and emotions appears to be a simple solution to the problem? When we attempt to control our thoughts and emotions’ we inevitably become entangled with them. This entanglement means we are tied to our internal states, we become our internal states rather than it being a transient experience.
What are the consequences of living a life of avoidance, suppression and control of our internal states? What if we could learn from these experiences? What if we really took hold of the guarantee that with life comes suffering?
Learning to become psychologically flexible takes commitment and awareness. There are some core elements to becoming psychologically flexible:
Be mindful, be present:
Being mindful is about not getting caught up in out thoughts and emotions, but rather living by being present, by using our senses to experience the world and the contexts we live in. Being mindful means focusing attention your experience, not pushing it away, not judging it or trying to eliminate it. How can we begin to be mindful if we have never done this before? Start small…
- Pay attention to the small details of life- notice the smells, the colours and textures of what is around you.
- Focus on your breath- notice what is happening within your body, the sensations, the urges, tensions, and even the pleasant sensations.
Accept your experience:
One definition of acceptance is to consent to receive or undertake a gift of something offered to you. Consider accepting a gift from a friend. How would you accept it, with open arms? With gratitude for the gift? What if we had gratitude for the experience that we are having? Allowing space for emotional experiences and accepting them as a gift. It does not mean that we must like or want to experience certain feelings and thoughts but it simply means to let them come and go and watch them evolve. If you let them float on by it means that you are able to invest your energy in living more meaningfully!
Notice the thoughts you have and ask, do I have to believe them? Am I investing in the thought? You can even say “thank you” to your mind for the thought as though someone is giving you a gift you don’t really like but you have to be polite
Identify your values:
Values are directions or act as a compass. They don’t end and you cannot tick them off as you do with a checklist. They could be considered a measure in which you evaluate your life’s decisions. In identifying your values consider asking yourself what is important to you? How do you want to be remembered and what do you want to stand for? What sort of sister / wife/ husband / son / employee/ volunteer / human being do you want to be? How do you want to react, interact, respond to and relate to the world, those around you and even to yourself?
Truly getting in touch with what you want to stand for is not a five minute exercise
Make a choice!
In making a choice, sometimes it is easy to give into the internal state that is happening at the time, especially because it is what you have become habituated to. Once you have become aware of and accepted the experience it is then about making a choice according to your values. Emotions and thoughts are transient, values are constant. Consider the options, weigh up the pros and cons and consider what value is inherent in the choice you make. Sometimes moving towards what’s important to you means choosing the more challenging option!
Hanaan Haddad is a registered Psychologist who has worked in Australia and the UK in both clinical and forensic settings. She has worked extensively with a wide range of complex mental health conditions.