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How Do We Build Cognitive Flexibility?

By: Donae Cannon, OTR/L

If someone truly believes a negative thought, trying to convince them of the opposite is not likely to work. Even if the negative evaluation is faulty or based on poor logic, if it‘s their reality, it's not easily argued.

We challenge our thoughts in order to change automatic thinking, but we often get stuck because we try to go too fast. Sometimes we need to bend a negative thought habit before we can break it.

Am I a fast swimmer?

When my oldest child tried swimming on the swim team for the first time, she was slow. Really slow. As in "every other swimmer was out of the pool and the judges were exchanging side-eye" kind of slow. Whether or not she was empirically slow is not actually the point here. The point is, she believed that she was slow.

After one of those meets, she asked me if she was a fast swimmer. She knew she wasn't, but for some inexplicable reason, she needed me to verbalize it. I responded with a torrent of growth mindset platitudes. I tried to emphasize the positive and did not want to crush her potential swim team dreams. She was completely impervious to my positivity, and eventually, visibly irritated.

Her response to each of my attempts to spin the positive was an increasingly exasperated, "Yeah, but am I a fast swimmer?" Round and round we went, until I realized she was not going to drop the question until I answered it truthfully.

"Nope. Not fast yet." I finally conceded. She seemed almost relieved when I said it. My daughter didn’t believe she was fast and she wasn't going to buy a story that completely contradicted what she believed to be true.

As it turns out, my daughter had no interest in continuing with her swim career and found no need to be particularly fast to enjoy the water, so there was no urgency to continue to challenge her thoughts on her speed (or her ability to improve it).

But there are times when our negative beliefs do have an impact on our lives and are worth challenging. If these beliefs are deeply held, then progress may simply be creating some flexibility in these thoughts. Our brains (not unlike my swim-challenged 6 year old) are attached to what they perceive is true. We can challenge our negative thoughts by considering a "just enough" change to our already existing thought.

A change like this can give us room to consider a new reality is possible, even if we are not yet 100% convinced. If someone is certain that their upcoming job opportunity will end in failure, suggesting the complete opposite of that belief "You will be a wild success!" is not likely to land.

When challenging a deeply held limiting belief, we may have more success when we bend the perceived reality, but not necessarily break it. Considering a different outcome "I could be average in my new job" might actually allow a shift in your mindset to begin.

The good news is that "bending" creates a cognitive flexibility that tends to have a ripple effect on our thought habits. When we regularly consider other possibilities, even just slightly different ones, we strengthen our ability to challenge the thoughts that no longer serve us.


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