The Flexible Mind – Part 3

Welcome back to The Flexible Mind blog series. My recent posts have been for the purpose of explaining how to relate to your thoughts in a new, less judgmental, more open-minded way, a rare skill in our society. The information in The Flexible Mind comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). ACT offers valuable resources and concepts for overcoming anxiety and other emotional disturbances.

As a reminder, a flexible mind is one that loosens the grip on compulsive thoughts and feelings versus being controlled by these worries and fears. Part one of this three-part series outlined an important aspect of having a flexible mind: the ability to defuse thoughts that dominate and overwhelm. Part two focused on taking thoughts from a place of dominance to a place of presence by attuning the mind, emotions, and body to what you are experiencing in the present moment. In part three, I will describe how personal values and committed action toward those values play an important role in mental flexibility. 

Let’s begin by describing values. Values are freely chosen virtues that you choose to live out and which represent who you are. Our values are connected to ourselves, our relationships, and our way of living. At a high level, valuing is the process of creating meaning in life. Valuing is evident when you choose behaviors that are consistent with what you care about1. For instance, if one of your values is to care for your body by eating healthy foods, you will not eat the double-chocolate cookies that are left out at work. However, while attending your grandmother’s 95th birthday party, you might eat a slice of cake made from your grandmother’s famous recipe. Why the difference in these scenarios? Although you value healthy eating, honoring family is also one of your highest values. Your grandmother’s legacy takes priority over eating healthy, so you indulge without guilt or shame.

Living out your values is an important part of having a flexible mind because it prevents you from fusing with negative thoughts and emotions. In the previous example, if you were not aware of your values and you made those same two choices, you may have felt guilty while eating the birthday cake due to the clash between important parts of your life. Days later, you might continue to have negative thoughts, maybe even resigning to the idea that you are a failure. Eventually, you would tell yourself that since you are a failure, you should eat whatever you want from now on. This progression represents what happens when a person is not living out her values, and she is fused with negative thoughts. She might become caught in a loop of negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that move her in the opposite direction of her values.

Behaving with your values in mind moves you outside that negative loop and toward your purpose and identity. The first step in this process is to identify the values that represent you, your relationships, and your way of life. The second step is to identify the actions you can take that directly correlate, or align, with your values. For instance, if one of your values is to be a life-long learner, the actions you might take to live out this value will focus on reading interesting books, listening to podcasts, taking educational classes, and attending conferences. By knowing the actions that allow you to live out this value, you will commit to take action by scheduling your life with those activities.

If you would like to increase your mental flexibility by working on your values, you can start by making a list. Take a piece of paper and make a vertical line down the center of it as well as a horizontal list directly across it in the center of the paper. Once complete, you will have a table with two columns and two rows. Write out your values on the left, upper box and your negative thoughts and emotions on the right, upper box. Under your values in the left, lower box, write out the behaviors that help you move toward your values. In the right, lower box, write out the negative behaviors you engage in when you are fused with negative thoughts and emotions. It might look something like this:

ValuesNegative Thoughts and Emotions
Behaviors Leading to ValuesBehaviors Leading to Negative Thoughts/Emotions

Use these lists to help you take committed action to move toward your values (the right column). The left column will help you recognize when you are moving away from your values and the right side will help you be aware of who you want to be, as well as what you do to live out those values.

Growing in mental flexibility has the ability to decrease anxiety and depression as well as improve relationships. If you are struggling with any of the issues outlined in this blog series, feel free to reach out and schedule an appointment with a therapist at the Center for Family Transformation (CFT). If you would like to learn more about mental flexibility and ACT, you may be interested in reading A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters, by Steven Hayes2, creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

Resources

  1. Hayes, L. & Coyne, L. ACT conversations cards. ContextualScience.org. Retrieved from https://contextualscience.org
  2. Hayes, S. (2019). A liberated mind: How to pivot toward what matters. New York, NY: Avery.

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