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Developing Mental Flexibility


When things don’t go as expected, we can learn to respond in a flexible way. There are some days though, when we simply get stuck with our thoughts and feelings and react rigidly. That is just how it goes, even when we “know better.”

For example, a few weeks ago, I had scheduled an appointment to have a standard medical exam that didn’t take place because “it got cancelled.” When the receptionist told me it was cancelled, I said, “I didn’t cancel it. If I had, I wouldn’t be here!” She didn’t seem empathetic. I asked her to check who may have cancelled it, and to see if I could still have the test. She called the lab and they said I could come back in two hours.

After looking in the computer, she discovered their “system” had automatically cancelled the appointment and there was nothing she or the lab could do. She couldn’t reschedule it, and I had to call a certain number to reschedule. At this point, I was getting upset.

I had rearranged my schedule, and the idea of having to wait more than fifty-five minutes on the phone to reschedule another appointment only got me more stuck with unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

I knew I could not control the situation and that it wasn’t anyone’s fault but a computer system. Nevertheless, I was frustrated and mad. I could’ve acknowledged my thoughts and allowed my feelings to be there without fueling them but I didn’t. Though, I knew it was the best option, I simply chose to continue to feed my emotions with more unhelpful thoughts as I drove home.

Then unexpectedly, I noticed a lady walking her two golden doodles. I found myself smiling and feeling a sense of joy.

What happened?

As soon as I noticed these beautiful dogs, I thought of Skye, the adorable puppy that helped me become a dog mom (see blog post: The Labels from Your Mind).

In less than a microsecond, my brain created a link between these dogs and Skye and the effect was a smile and the feeling of joy. We have an amazing brain! In this case, the link created a positive change in my mood and I welcomed it!

This realization created another thought, “If only I could be as flexible as Skye!” Then I smiled again. The appointment fiasco became unimportant.

Reality is, we can choose how to respond to our internal and external experiences each moment. It’s not easy but it’s worth creating a flexible mindset so we can enjoy life despite mishaps. How can we go about it?

We can practice the following principles:

  • Being Open to what life offers us each moment by noticing and acknowledging our thoughts and feelings instead of getting stuck with them. Even though we may not like feeling the way we do, it’s best to be willing to take what life offers us each moment rather than ignoring, fighting, escaping, or fueling our emotions like I did. Just like rain, we cannot control our internal experiences (e.g., thoughts, feelings, and sensations). It’s best to create space for them, and let them run their course.
  • Being Aware of the present moment, which in turn will help us respond in helpful ways. Brief practices like using our senses can make a difference in our awareness. Can you take two minutes every day to describe three objects with three senses (sight, sound, touch) in detail? Don’t expect your unpleasant and unhelpful internal events to disappear. This practice can help you recognize that you have a choice on where to focus your attention. Can you also notice if you are treating yourself kindly like you treat your loved ones?
  • Being Actively engaged in doing what matters with whom matters most is more important than the discomfort (e.g., sadness, frustration, anxiety) we feel during hard times. Each day, will you be willing to engage in an activity that creates meaning despite the discomfort it may bring? Will you do what it takes because it’s worth it?

Knowing something doesn’t always translate to living it every time. In my story, I knew I was responding the wrong way. We are all a work in progress. Let’s be patient with ourselves and keep picking ourselves up with kindness.

My resolution today is to be more open, aware and actively engaged in the life I wish to have.

Will you join me?

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