Why I want a flexible brain

- 220207

The nice thing about pursuing adult education and continuous studies is that I rarely spend a week without learning something new. More often than that, I also find myself challenged by the material or the concepts. And when I say challenged it can mean puzzled - as in what is this thing my teacher is talking about - or stuck - understanding the value of a concept and unable to see how I could apply it in my own life or work.

That’s how the other day, I was moved by the idea of seeking flexibility in a place that I’d never considered. My brain.

There I was, back from my ski trip, getting a pedicure in January (as an ex-New Yorker, it’s essentially maintenance), listening to a lecture on ACT or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: an action-oriented approach to psychotherapy that stems from traditional behaviour therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.

I’d been introduced to ACT in coaching training last year, had a fairly good grasp on this empirically based method but you know what it’s like. Sometimes you need to hear one thing or have someone use a different metaphor to explain a concept and suddenly something unlocks.

So there I was, painfully annoyed, because another client of this tiny Vietnamese spa who’d just arrived was clearly committed to wearing her mask on her chin. I sat there fuming (because I was wearing my mask appropriately over my mouth and nose), thinking to myself: ‘The rules are there for a reason!’ and assorted other commentary came to mind. I did my best to let it go.

Meanwhile, in my airpods, the guest lecturer, Dr Jonathan Kaplan was going on about the importance of cultivating a flexible brain.

Kaplan is a very enthusiastic teacher. The passion he has for his subject was coming through loud and clear, with outbursts of a sense of humour I didn’t expect, and which in a grown man and a scientist was as amusing as it was refreshing.

He asked us at the top of the course to find a piece of paper and a pen or to jot down some notes on our phone and answer the following question: what’s one thing we have struggled with in the past?

Then we had to raise our hand if we’d struggled with this thing for the past year. So I held up my hand, mentally.

Three years? Yep, definitely still.

Five years? Hmmmm. Yes.

Ten years? …

Lots of arms were getting tired. Seems that we all get stuck in places; it felt a bit reassuring and also worrying at the same time.

The lecture continued and Dr Kaplan brought up the example of one of his clients, an octogenarian with a grudge against his deceased parents and brother (who was the favourite, and in his mind the cause of all the things that had gone wrong in his life). When the suggestion came that maybe, even if this had been true, he could release the story, he got mad at his therapist and refused. His identity was wrapped tightly around this narrative. And at his age, rigidity was impossible to release.

Suddenly, while the beauty therapist was managing my (now pretty) toe nails, an example of inflexibility in my own mind popped up. It was related to that ‘thing we struggled with’ which he’d asked us to write down right at the beginning.

I was looking at this with a fresh eye. There was fear of hurt, exposure, lurking behind that rigidity around my mind narrative.

Almost naturally, the release happened, when it dawned on me that I’m not rigid. I’m flexible (an identity I embrace since it is true in my body). I can do this, let’s get me a flexible brain!’

Still listening to the lecture with my iPad balancing on my knees, feet in and out of the therapist’s hands, I thought to myself:

‘Can I be with what is? Yes, I can. I bloody practice mindfulness every day, it should be sinking in by now.

Can I get over my fear? Yes.

Will I be able to cope if the fearful outcome is to be repeated? Yes.

Can I let go of this old rigid point of view? Yes.

Can I move on? YES!’

To call this an aha moment is an understatement. And my faithful readers know I have many an aha moment. I’d been a prisoner of this particular personal narrative for a good couple of years. So off I went - after the brick red nail polish (a pretty new colour by Hermès) had dried on my hands and feet. Off I went, with a changed mind, a flexible mind, having released the mental grip around that particular issue.


Coaches often call these deeply ingrained thoughts that don’t serve us (and keep us playing small in one way or another) a limiting belief. And the first time I heard the term, I had no clue what that could mean. Jargon, that’s what I thought. It took me years to understand, accept and unpack, proud that I am, that I could have beliefs (about myself, or anything and anyone) that are not helpful.

These beliefs and narrative, they are so tricky. The things that we tell ourselves, and how we get wrapped up in thinking of them as being true.

They can happen about the past and the future, we conceptualise ways of thinking, we condition our own experience: “I’m never going to get better, it’s going to be a disaster”, and all that kind of stuff.

In coaching (and I’ve been coached a lot), we have a chance to identify these limiting thoughts, and work on cognitive defusion, not changing the thinking itself, but how we relate to that thinking. Thought work - as it can also be referred to - is basically finding another perspective.

So here, I am with a slightly more flexible brain. Woo hoo!

And rather faithfully to the ACT method, shortly after this surprising and liberating episode, I acted and did the thing that I kept on saying I wouldn’t do. It’s not that fear has completely disappeared, or that I can control the outcome, but I don’t relate to it in the same way.

Was the lecturer's example the only reason I was able to act on this personal struggle of mine? No, over the years, I’ve worked on myself, specifically to help me out of fearful avoidance or inaction, or impulsivity - and I clearly have some big blind spots left.

But importantly, I am clear about my values.

Had I at any given point held up this limiting belief against my values, I would have most certainly moved out of the fake mental jail I had imprisoned myself into. That’s why I love doing values work, personally and professionally. They need to be authentic, of course, really resonate, and when they are, they can clear things up like few other things can.

Now I wonder if we can cultivate similar adaptive strategies to increase psychological flexibility in business. For that, you’ll have to read me next week.

Until then…