Challenging Rigidity in Thoughts and Embracing Flexibility
Author: Justine Rickard M.A.
You are not your thoughts. Our thoughts come and go throughout the day. It’s our ability to recognize them as such - just thoughts - without rigidly attaching to them or taking them necessarily as “facts” that can determine our degree of cognitive flexibility.
The eating disorder often shows up in very rigid, black-and-white thought patterns. It often has people believing that there are hard and fast rules around things like food, body, self-worth, exercise, etc. Developing skills to increase cognitive flexibility can be an important part of an individual’s recovery.
Cognitive flexibility involves the ability to modify thinking based on experiences and new information. It involves the consideration of new or different perspectives and the ability to make adjustments or changes to behaviour accordingly. This form of flexibility is related to our ability for resilience when faced with challenges and life stressors, our ability to tap into creativity and problem-solving skills when we run into a challenge or unexpected outcome, and the ability to update beliefs and actions when they no longer align with our values.
Examples of rigid thought patterns include thoughts that contain “should”s, “must”s, “have to”s, and unrealistic expectations or rules. Our brains gravitate toward simplistic, concrete, and black-and-white understanding of the world and can struggle with uncertainty and nuance. Although the brain does this as a way to try and create order, certainty, and predictability, it can actually leave us feeling ill-equipped to cope with and through life’s ups and downs. So much in life is inherently unpredictable. Being intentional with practicing and adopting a more flexible approach to our language/thoughts, expectations, and our rules or conditions for the world/others/ourselves can open up new possibilities for viewing and coping with life’s unexpected curveballs.
Reflection: How has holding onto rigid beliefs and thoughts impacted you, including your ability to take in new information/evidence, adapt to changes or uncertainty, and adjust expectations for yourself or others?