Whether you are struggling with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or any other kind of mental health issue, I find that the area where people tend to struggle the most can be boiled down to whether they are mentally rigid or mentally flexible. What do I mean by this? Cognitive rigidity (also known as mental rigidity) is technically defined as “difficulty changing mental sets.” In more simple terms, it basically means that an individual who is cognitively rigid has difficulty getting out of their predetermined mindset and taking on new perspectives or viewing things from a different angle. Mental rigidity vs. flexibility is an area that is often talked about in a newer type of therapy, called Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (RO DBT). This treatment was designed for people who are described as “over-controlled”- which, as the name might suggest, involves an excessive amount of self-control, and a whole lot of mental rigidity in many domains.

This can apply to issues large and small: for example, someone who is mentally rigid or over-controlled may take the same route to work every day, simply because that’s the only way they’ve ever gone when there may be a more efficient route to take during certain traffic times and patterns. Overall, other than potentially adding a few minutes to their commute, this example seems relatively innocuous (though those extra minutes every day, five days a week would sure add up!) However, mental rigidity becomes more of a problem when it is applied to interpersonal relationships or work, especially with perfectionism, compulsions, or difficulty handling unmet expectations. For example, someone who rigidly adheres to a particular set of manners or expectations for others’ behavior may be left feeling disappointed and isolated when others fail to live up to these (often unspoken) rules.

On the other hand, when individuals are able to be more mentally flexible, they are able to alter and adjust their viewpoint in light of new information or suggestions, or they may be more inclined to try out new ways of doing things before settling on the most “right” way. These people are able to “roll with the punches,” so to speak; if the plan was to go get Mexican for dinner, but their partner texts about a craving for Thai food, flexible individuals are able to respond with “How spicy do you want the panang curry??” Mental flexibility allows room for spontaneity, creativity, and positivity in spite of change. When it comes to anxiety, in particular, people tend to want to control as many variables in life as possible in order to reduce anxiety. However, this can result in a rigid adherence to a plan that may not make much sense, and someone can easily slip into an off-putting dictator role when they cling tightly to a previously held idea or plan and “white knuckle” their way through life, constantly fearing change or deviation from what they thought to be the case.

The reason mental rigidity is so challenging for people is that the world is painted in shades of grey and often quite messy; as Pliny the Elder, the ancient author and natural philosopher states “the only certainty is that nothing is certain.” Given that this is the case, it’s easy to see why a move toward mental flexibility will leave someone feeling less distressed, less out of control, and will improve interpersonal relationships and lessen symptoms of many disorders. If you find that you struggle with being mentally flexible, read on for some tips about how to lessen mental rigidity.

Allow emotions to inform your choices

If you become aware of a nagging feeling of discomfort or feel like you’re digging in your heels while receiving feedback, this is likely an indication that you are engaging in rigidity through being resistant to new ideas. Challenge yourself to lean into that discomfort instead of immediately escaping from it, and ask yourself what it might be there to teach you. After all, our feelings are there for a reason, and they often have a lot to teach us if we let them!

Ditch the notion of “one right way.”

When we accept that there are infinite ways to approach a given task or problem and that no one way is the “absolute” right one, we free ourselves to view things from many new perspectives and may stumble upon something brand new and exciting in the process! Think about the old adage “two heads are better than one.” Why might this be? Because two heads mean two ideas and perspectives, and bouncing ideas off of each other allows us to take the best of both worlds and leave behind the rest. Giving ourselves (and others) the gift of an open mind minimizes our distress and allows us to grow from being exposed to new ways of doing things.

Embrace mistakes to expand your horizons

For people who are mentally rigid, making mistakes can be taken as a sign of failure or can reinforce the idea that they didn’t do it the “right” way to a tee. Recognize that if we aren’t willing to make mistakes, we would never try anything new, which always carries with it the risk of making errors. The risk of not trying is much more serious, though: remaining stuck in a small version of the world you’ve carved out for yourself for the rest of your life! Try reframing thinking, so that rather than a mistake equating to failure, it equates with evolution or movement to a newer, less rigid, and more flexible way of living.

Put on your detective hat

When you’re presented an idea that conflicts with a previously held one of your own, you may get an urge to immediately shut down their idea and provide evidence why your idea is superior. Don’t give in to this urge! Instead, spend time sleuthing and asking questions to try to genuinely understand why the other person thinks the way they do. You’ll learn a lot more- and your relationship will likely be better off for it!

If you find that you are struggling with mental rigidity or over-control and it is affecting your life, therapy is often a great place to start to help yourself gain new perspectives on situations and to increase your ability to see things differently. Give us a call today to schedule an appointment with one of our highly-trained therapists who can teach you skills from Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral therapy and help make you a mental gymnast!

Dr. Samantha Turetsky

Dr. Turetsky is a postdoctoral fellow. She is a CBT specialist, anxiety expert, and family therapist. Her specialties include academic success, relationship counseling, and teaching coping skills.