Flexible Thinking Helped Me Develop Self-Compassion — Here's How

mbg Contributing Writer By Poppy Jamie
mbg Contributing Writer
Poppy Jamie is an entrepreneur, influencer, and rising star in the mental health and mindfulness space.
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The Flex (a way of thinking I live by) is based on the concept of psychological flexibility, defined as "the ability to stay in contact with the present moment regardless of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations while choosing one's behaviors based on the situation and personal values." I first heard about psychological flexibility from the work of clinical psychologist Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., the codeveloper of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a highly effective psychotherapy for anxiety and depression.

Hayes's teachings have us bend with our negative emotions, not deny them. I loved this idea of bending thoughts like not good enough, people hate me, or I'm a fat, ugly loser, rather than forcing myself to push through them with "grit."

I was getting tired (and sick) from trying to be gritty all the time. I pressured myself to bounce back when I was still walking wounded. Resilience training gives me horrible flashbacks to bootcamp classes, being completely out of breath, hair frizzing, face beet red, muscles burning, and the instructor screaming, "Keep running!" You are so wary of being the only one in the class wanting to stop and crawl that despite feeling like you're about to collapse, you carry on.

Ugh, my worst.

Pre-Flex, my whole life was like bootcamp; my brain screamed, Ignore the pain! Don't give up! And I didn't. But ignoring pain does not make it go away. It only makes it worse. I'll repeat that for my stiff-upper-lip readers: Ignoring pain does not make it go away. It makes it worse.

We need a new strategy and an exit from bootcamp life. The mentality of pushing ourselves to the breaking point because "that's just how it's done," is making us chronically sick and miserable. There's a better alternative: living life flexibly!

How to live a more flexible, balanced life.

Going through life knowing how to bend is not about seeing things as black or white but exploring gray areas. It's about listening to our bodies, making mini pivots to enable us to shimmy out of tight spots, and consciously choosing to step away from fear. Of course, hardships happen, and we all have to keep moving when we'd rather curl into the fetal position on our beds. But rather than gritting through it with Terminator-style determination, or feeling frozen like a bunny in headlights, being flexible is about acknowledging difficulty and then allowing ourselves to think differently. It's about becoming a thought gymnast where an obstacle is never a block but an opportunity to leapfrog over.

Our culture tells us to be driven and relentless. Psychological flexibility, on the other hand, gives us the permission to slow down, be kind and compassionate to ourselves, knowing that by doing so, we'll always find a better way forward. Just because we can eke out the energy to "KEEP RUNNING!" doesn't mean we always should. Squeezing today's energy is just stealing tomorrow's, after all.

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Stiff thinking vs. flexible thinking

Flexi-thoughts are considerate, challenging, accepting, curious, and motivating, like, How do I feel right now? It's fine to feel that way. Why do I feel like this? What can I learn here? Bendiness of mind begins the moment we become aware of the chatter going on inside and remember that thoughts are transient. They come and go and can be stretched in a million directions. A key aspect of bending the mind is what's called "critical thinking." Critical thinking is how scientists approach a problem, by trying to see it from every angle and imagining multiple possibilities.

Rigid thoughts, on the other hand, are critical in the worst way—stuck with one point of view that's usually belittling, demanding, and energy-sucking. They lay down the law, as in This is how I've always done it, so I'm going to keep doing it the same way, even if it hurts and I'm struggling. Stiffness of mind is having a fixed outlook—I knew it was going to be like this—that doesn't grow and change and never ask why or what's this based on?

As Karen R. Hurd, nutritionist and author of And They Said It Wasn’t Possible: True Stories of People Who Were Healed From the Impossible, writes, "When a battle plan is failing, we shouldn't say, 'I'll try again, but I'll try harder this time' but instead 'Go back to the drawing board and formulate a new battle plan. And if that one fails, formulate yet another battle plan.'"

How to put it into practice:

  • Instead of: Ignore the pain and it'll go away. Try thinking: I'm hurting today. Where is the pain, and what is it trying to tell me?
  • Instead of: I can't do it. Try thinking: I'm frustrated, which happens in life. Before I jump to conclusions, I am going to gather more information and change my energy.
  • Instead of: Everyone hates me. Try thinking: I'm feeling a bit insecure right now, which seems to happen at parties. What about this situation makes me doubt myself? Has anyone done anything to prove my doubts are real?
  • Instead of: It's always going to be like this. Try thinking: I'm feeling defeated about the future, which is normal and OK. What can I do in this moment that will make me feel more optimistic about what's to come?

Adapted from HAPPY NOT PERFECT copyright © 2021 by Poppy Jamie. Used by permission of Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

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