A Research Paper By Olga Kurek, Transformational Coach, NETHERLANDS
The Dialectic Pair of Flexibility-Rigidity
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend. — Bruce Lee.
Nowadays, flexibility is a crucial skill for professionals pursuing ambitious professional goals in a competitive environment. The time is limited to 24 hours, but expectations, responsibilities, and distractions increase exponentially. Nowadays, technologies created to make one more productive seem to add complexity by enabling 24/7 availability and erasing the line, separating work from other living areas (Martin, 2019). The world today is fast and demanding. High performance, busyness, and overwork became the “new normal” and “status symbol” of modern times’ fast-paced and high-pressure workplace. Thriving in such an environment requires a flexible and stress-resistant mindset.
When high-performance standards are paired with inflexible beliefs, attitudes, and practices, experiencing distress becomes likely. Believing that hard work paves the way to success can be motivating but also can cause substantial stress once work becomes all-time absorbing, while other life areas are non-existent. Some dangerous workplace beliefs are: “I am = my performance”; “Work is more important than relaxation”; “Succeeding at work is more important than anything else in life”, etc. Such beliefs can be functioning until something goes out of control. They risk turning into perfectionism, busyness, and overwork under the umbrella of the ”work hard & play hard” motto. Top them with some rigid beliefs about stress itself to get yourself a package deal.
This paper introduces the dialectic pair of flexibility-rigidity. It explores flexibility as a coaching concept for stress reduction, well-being, and performance enhancement for professionals in fast-paced and high-pressure environments.
What Is Flexibility?
Flexibility defines mental skills, psychological phenomena, or stress coping mechanisms. Every definition emphasizes its role when navigating through stormy times.
Mental flexibility is the ability to shift the course of thoughts. Flexibility helps to adapt to new, changing, unplanned, or uncertain events. It creates new and breaks the old ways of thinking, which are unhelpful and stress-inducing. It emphasizes the own ideas, beliefs, values, and ways of thinking. Furthermore, it enables understanding and valuing other people’s points and opinions, which is crucial for being emphatic and socially successful.
Psychological flexibility is a broader term. Next to the cognitive component, it encompasses emotional and behavioral ones. The concept is grounded in the present and has an orientation on actions and values (Kashadan & Rottenberg, 2010).
Mental and psychological flexibility relate to active (positive, constructive) stress-coping and management skills. It is a process guiding your thoughts and actions toward problem-solving, managing emotions, and having meaningful relations. Coping is your conscious effort to eliminate the source of stress and its consequences.
Flexible people are flexible in their thoughts, acts, and emotional reactions. They don’t have one “go-to” stress-coping strategy as they attempt to apply different ones depending on the circumstances (Southwick & Charney, 2012). Flexible people are more skilled in managing stressful personal and professional situations and feel more satisfied with themselves, others, and life. They are happy and fulfilled.
What Is Rigidity?
Rigidity is an opposite characteristic that describes a mindset captive to fixed ideas, beliefs, values, ways of thinking, acting, and reacting to stress. Spotting a rigid person is easy as they follow the principle it is my way or no way. Their actions are limited to their own fixed rules. They are afraid to leave their comfort zone and face uncertainty. Losing control of them is comparable to Armageddon. They are often stuck in one way of thinking, feeling, or doing things, refuse to change, and, therefore, miss out on opportunities. They struggle with interpersonal relationships, managing conflicts, and prioritizing tasks. Frequently, rigidity leads to feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and meltdown (Coplan, 2016).
Being rigid can be very stressful. Even more stressful if thinking errors and self-limiting beliefs impact how we see the ever-changing world.
How to Level up Flexibility?
Thinking of ways of increasing flexibility, you might want to adopt a holistic approach, addressing mind, body, and spirit. Below are several ideas on how you can achieve that:
- Review and rebalance your nutrition:
- Supplement your diet with products rich in L-Tyrosine: soy products, chicken, turkey, fish, peanuts, almonds, avocados, bananas, milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, beans, pumpkin, and sesame seeds for mental flexibility and “feeling good” (dopamine) boost (Steenberger et al., 2015; Bestmann et al., 2015).
- Reduce your intake of sugar, unhealthy fats, and fermented foods, and consider taking a high-quality probiotic to improve your microbiota. Recent researches show that there is a “brain gut” Thus, it is crucial to care about your guts to maximize your brain performance (Magnusson et al., 2015).
- Add omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. In one of my favorite episodes of “Tom & Jerry” (“Baby Puss” (1943)), the famous cat Tom gets to eat a big spoon of castor oil (omega-3 source) after being caught having a little party. Luckily, nowadays, there are multiple alternative ways of supplementing your diet with omega-3. You can enrich your diet with fatty fish (mackerel, salmon, cod, herring, oysters, sardines, anchovies, or caviar), seeds, nuts (flax, chia, walnuts, soybeans, etc.), or you go for capsuled supplements (Zamroziewicz et al., 2015).
- Introduce more physical exercises. Physical exercises contribute to the growth of new brain cells. They also help you to shift the way you think about any problem. Upsides include mood boost, better relaxation, a feeling of calmness, and less worrisome thoughts (Masley et al., 2009).
- Anchor in the present with mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation enables the development of a self-observation skill that helps to disengage from stressful thinking patterns and to connect with the here and now. Both skills are crucial for adapting your responses to stressful or negative situations. Further benefits of mindfulness meditation: enhancement of focus, working memory, patience, imagination, creativity, positive affect, and well-being; reduction of distractions, psychosomatic stress, negative emotions, ruminations, and conflicts. Mindful practice helps to gain a new perspective on a stressful situation or event; build stress coping and management skills; improve responses to stress; become less emotionally reactive and disengage from emotionally upsetting mental pictures (Davis & Hayes, 2012; Moore & Malinowski, 2009).
- Regularly get proper sleep. When you sleep, you are moving through different sleep phases: light, deep, and REM sleep (rapid-eye movement phase). All sleep phases are indispensable, but REM has particular importance for memory consolidation, emotional and information processing, healthy brain development, and wakefulness preparation (Summer & Singh, 2022).
- Engage in constructive inner dialogue, also known as verbal thinking, inner speaking, covert self-talk, internal monologue, and internal speech. Inner dialogue is a phenomenon of speaking to yourself in your head. Inner voice enhances self-regulation (Alderson-Day & Fernyhough, 2015). Incorporating the inner dialogue into your daily routine can help you to gain more control over the thought-shifting process when creating the change. Maintaining the hygiene of the self-dialogue and keeping it free from critical voices is essential.
- Exercise your working memory regularly. Holding more things “in your mind” will positively contribute to your problem-solving skills (Borella et al., 2013).
- Read and play games (incl. video). Reading makes you challenge your assumptions, fixed thoughts, and beliefs. It pushes you towards a shift in how you think about things, ideas, situations, and people presented in the storyline. Playing games stimulates brain activity and makes you look for new solutions to old problems (Glass et al., 2013).
- Change your routine and break your habits. Relying on routine or habit might seem appealing. It allows doing things without willpower and effort and with minimum motivation while striking higher productivity. But here is an issue. Routines and habits make your brain lazy and too much reliant on the automatic pattern. Keeping the brain fit requires breaking some structures and embracing discovery and learning. Then your thankful brain will create new connections and release dopamine increasing a good feeling and motivation.
- Get yourself a coach. The brain is a muscle, and it requires regular exercise. A coach can provide you with space and structure for exercising flexibility and reaching your goals. When working on flexibility, your coach will be familiar with cognitive behavioral and acceptance and commitment coaching approaches. Flexibility comprises willingness, awareness, self-efficacy, and commitment. Thus, you can expect to work on these pillars during your coaching journey.
The picture wouldn’t be complete without mentioning factors that impair flexibility. Among them: are genetics, hormonal disbalance, pure or unbalanced nutrition, physical passivity, alcohol, and drug abuse (tobacco is also a drug), mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression, and high stress.
High stress is dangerous, and it can damage your brain. There is an extra emphasis on “high” or “acute” because low to moderate stress levels can be good for you. Good stress, or eustress, increases motivation and focus, enhances resilience, activates growth, builds relationships and bonds with others, etc. Bad stress (high, acute, chronic, prolonged) impairs your flexibility and stress resistance. It is a vicious circle that stays intact until you remove the stressor.
How Did Coaching Flexibility Help to Rethink Stress?
Usually, stress is perceived and portrayed negatively, e.g., in media, at work, at home, at a friend’s house, at the university, etc. Sometimes, you hear about an “epidemic” of occupational stress and burnout. Or that stress belongs to the top six death causes and top reasons for mental health problems. Stress relates to absenteeism, worsening well-being, skyrocketing medical expenses, impairment of cognitive functions, relational conflicts, etc. From all the sources, we get the information that stress is a threat.
Here is an issue with this belief. Stress is a normal human reaction. It means that everyone experiences it and does so often. The human body is designed smartly and is well-prepared to react to stress. When you perceive something as a threat, a small part of your brain, the hypothalamus, sets up an alert system to release stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol. Adrenaline is responsible for your heart pounding faster than usual. It increases blood pressure and boosts energy supplies that you might need for a stress response (fight, flight, or freeze). Cortisol increases sugar levels, enhances sugar usage, and suppresses the digestive and reproductive systems. So if we have such a complex natural stress-resistance system, we can manage at least some stress. Agree?
So, if stress is not that bad, and the human body can manage it, why catastrophize, agonize, and fear it? One possible explanation is that some people have a “negative stress mindset” and experience “stress about stress” while others don’t. A negative stress mindset is a set of rigid beliefs about stress and our abilities to eliminate stress triggers and consequences (Crum et al., 2013). A positive stress mindset is more flexible. It is aware, willing to adapt, confident in its ability to recover, and committed to acting.
A technique for shifting a stress mindset is called cognitive reappraisal. It aims to change the meaning of the situation without changes, objectively, positively, or negatively. Positive reappraisal refers to reframing a stressful situation or event as more positive, negative reappraisal – vice versa.
Positive reappraisal allows rethinking stress. Rethinking stress means changing how you think, feel, and act in response to stress. Using positive reappraisal allows shifting the perception of the stress towards seeing it as less harmful, as something that gives energy rather than takes it. Positive reappraisal reframes stress by identifying, challenging, and adjusting stress-inducing thoughts and beliefs.
The concept of flexibility (mental, psychological, coping mechanism, or mindset) can be applied when coaching for developing flexible stress mechanisms and strategies to enhance well-being and performance. Coaching for flexibility addresses coaching objectives related to academic and professional performance, social, emotional, and general confidence in own abilities, resiliency, work, life satisfaction or balance, and perfectionism. It can also be applied when dealing with feelings of helplessness, blame, guilt, and shame.
Boosting flexibility requires a holistic approach that targets mind, body, and spirit. Among others, adjusting nutrition, sleeping, and aerobic routine, introducing mindfulness meditation, more reading and game playing, opening up to novelty, and exercising memory and constructive inner dialogue are some ways of leveling up your flexibility.
Shifting from rigidity to flexibility can be done outside the coaching space. As one famous proverb says:
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Going far in coaching means reaching sustainable results and addressing underlying beliefs that are not always visible to those going through the process solo. Coaches, skilled in cognitive behavioral and acceptance and commitment approaches, apply the concept of flexibility when shifting the perspective and can provide space and effective supporting structures for progressing more efficiently toward your goals.
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