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Why Cognitive Flexibility Is a Must Have for Mental Health


I’m forever challenging clients who say, “I always” and “I never” or who tell me they’re a certain way, such as insisting, “I hate parties” or “I try never to hurt anyone.” These statements are a sure sign that someone is lacking cognitive flexibility or the adaptive ability to make judgments about what’s necessary or effective situation by situation

One of the biggest mistakes that dysregulated eaters make is holding on for dear life to old ways of thinking, rather than make decisions based on current reality. For example, my client Tonya grew up in a family in which she was sexually and emotionally abused. No wonder she didn’t trust people and took pride in relying only on herself—except that no man or woman is an island and we need to depend on others to live our best lives. Her response to others was adaptive in childhood but is maladaptive now.

Likewise, my client Terrence who gives people way too many chances to prove themselves and regularly ends up being hurt by friends and family. Raised in an Evangelical home, he insists he wants to think the best of people (as opposed to Tonya who thinks the worst), even though experience tells him this approach is unwise and downright harmful. It’s understandable to want to hold onto whatever helped us back then, but it makes no sense when it causes injury in the present. 

Take a minute to consider your “always/never” convictions, rigid attitudes and ways of thinking, such as, “Well, this is just who I am.” Maybe you believe certain groups of people are less than rather than assessing folks individually. Or have ideas about money, work, play, fun or food that are outdated. Or see events or people as either good or bad (aka, simplistic thinking) rather than as highly complex humans. 

Life runs from multifaceted to mind-boggling. If you’re always looking at it from one point of view, you’ll stagnate and/or cause yourself unhappiness. Flexible thinking involves viewing life from different perspectives and being able to step outside your own mindset to get some distance from your own singular point of view. It also means knowing when to be alert, hyper-vigilant, trusting, driven, or able to chill out and go with the flow. 

Science tells us that people with cognitive or mental flexibility are the most successful in life. That means keeping a present focus, taking every situation as it comes and giving it the appropriate and effective attention it needs. Grow your mental flexibility by fighting all-nothing and rigid thinking and opening up your mind to more nuanced approaches in order to enjoy a loving, meaningful, successful life. You could start by being more flexible in how you view food and your body.