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September 12, 2021
“You will never be more powerful or peaceful than when you are completely vulnerable, with nothing to defend.” Unknown
I don’t know if I read that quote or made it up many years ago, but it has to some degree shaped my adult life as a person and my approach as a therapist.
I teach psychological flexibility — the ability to be open and curious about pretty much everything. Which is the opposite of psychological rigidity — closed-mindedness — a characteristic that many of us struggle with our entire lives.
Personal experience has taught me that the world becomes very small when ideas are not open for discussion. It makes me think of cowering in the corner of a jail cell while the door is swinging wide open.
When Fear Runs the Show
Like a Venus Flytrap snapping shut on insects, when we’re afraid our minds snap closed, gripping our ideas with the strength of a warrior ready for a battle.
Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we treat our ideas like facts that we have to fall on the sword for?
It’s pretty simple. Because we don’t like not knowing. We like to solve problems, and we want them solved now. So, holding on tightly to what we believe, despite information to the contrary, is often an attempt to make ourselves feel safe.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist, and Chief Medical Advisor to the President, received numerous criticisms for changing his mind about how to manage Covid 19. However, Fauci said he didn’t understand the people faulting him for changing his mind as new information became available. He said, “That’s the scientific process. As you get more information, it’s essential to change your opinion because you’ve got to be guided by the science and the current data.”
I get people’s reluctance to let go of ideas and beliefs that have allowed them to feel in control in a world that, at times, seems out of control.
I worked with a woman who had a belief that hard work needed to be fueled by intensity. But she found that others experienced her intensity as off-putting. She felt irritable when interrupted, and people began to walk on eggshells around her.
So, she began exploring the idea of working with a sense of nonchalance or effortlessness. She said, “I saw that so much of what I do with a display of gut-wrenching effort is to trigger accolades, respect, and gratitude. Instead, I get, “Are you ok?” or “What’s wrong?”
Sometimes just looking at our ideas and beliefs, questioning them, can open our eyes to our fears, and the ways we’ve been unknowingly shooting ourselves in the foot.
Our natural desire is to move away from, protect ourselves from discomfort, so how do we cultivate openness and curiosity?
Discussing vs. Expressing
One way to explore open vs. closed-mindedness is to explore the difference between discussing and expressing an opinion.
Discussing implies a mutual sharing of information — a listener and a speaker taking turns — a back and forth of sharing and hearing one another’s thoughts.
Expressing tends to be one-sided and can look like a stage performance with lots of drama and emotionalism.
For years I thought of myself as open-minded — until I began to watch my thoughts and behaviors closely. I saw myself repeatedly jumping to conclusions about other people and their beliefs based on small soundbites without really understanding their intentions and motivations.
I lumped people into groups — those who agreed with me and those who didn’t. Thankfully, today I can see that when it comes to ideas, one size doesn’t fit all.
For example, all liberals don’t support letting anyone and everyone into the United States who wants in. And all conservatives don’t support ignoring the needs of all under-served or struggling communities.
Open-minded adults deal in shades of grey around problems. They get that if they have a better understanding of what’s going on, their steps to fix the problem will be more constructive.
Their first goal is not to change someone else’s mind or to change anything. It is to understand.
From Closed to Open
You’ll know you’re still struggling with closed-mindedness when:
- You can’t see anything about another person’s position to which you can relate.
- You spend all your time looking for information that will support what you already think you know.
- You hear nothing of someone else’s perspective because you’re busy formulating your four-hundredth argument why your position is the only possible ‘right’ one.
You’ll know you’ve achieved some degree of openness and curiosity when:
- You listen closely to someone you disagree with, to understand rather than shoot down their ideas.
- You notice your comment has turned into a monologue, and you catch yourself, slow down and ask a question rather than continue preaching.
- You ask someone to tell you more and mean it.
Most of us have these two things in common: we want loving, supportive relationships, and we want to see our children grow up safe and healthy.
We can’t change the world, but we can make an impact on those we touch. It only takes one to stop a pissing match.
So let’s stop picking up the rope of divisiveness and instead ask questions with sincere curiosity. Maybe then we can play a role in making the world a little kinder and safer for our children.