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Thinking flexibly: Moving beyond a one-story life by Patricia McAdoo

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Patricia McAdoo

Patricia McAdoo

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There is an iconic and heart-breaking scene in the film On the Waterfront in which Marlon Brando as the dockworker, Terry Malloy, tells his brother ‘I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody.’ His story is of a promising boxing career cut short and his brother is the one he blames. We can all get trapped in a negative story that seems to define our lives. The problem is that we get stuck in the story and it’s the frame through which we judge everything that happens to us. When we are stuck with a one-story version of our life such as ‘I’ll never amount to anything. I’m a failure at everything’ then shaking up your perspective helps you to see other possibilities. You do not have to follow one version of your own life story.

Developing the ability to be flexible in our thinking helps us to be more objective and frees us from old ways of behaving. Being flexible makes us more tolerant of change, of coping with new circumstances. It gives us a feeling that we can manage, that we can figure things out. We can stand back and see things more objectively and not feel overwhelmed by what is happening. Life will inevitably throw curveballs. Having the ability to adapt to life changes or cope with difficult life events can greatly change your quality of life. The Stoic philosophers realised that it helped to reframe difficulties as challenging setbacks which they welcomed as learning opportunities.

In his book The Shark and the Albatross: Travels with a Camera to the Ends of the Earth, wildlife photographer John Aitchison describes filming the first flight of an albatross as it took off from a small island west of Hawaii. In fact, there were two film crews. Aitchison filmed the bird from a small cage just above the ocean while underwater divers filmed the predatory sharks lying in wait. The bird took flight but then came down to rest on the sea. A shark took its opportunity and soared out of the sea, mouth open. The frantic young albatross literally ran on the water, spreading its wings to take off again and succeeded. John Aitchison describes how, after filming the escape of the albatross, he inevitably sympathised with the bird, but the divers were full of admiration for the sharks: ‘They spoke of the sharks’ exquisite sense of timing and their extraordinary navigational skills which every year bring them to this tiny speck of land just as the first birds begin to fly. They pointed out that sharks are vital to the health of the ocean and in hushed tones describe their beauty and their shocking decline due to overfishing.’ What is interesting in the account of the shark and the albatross is that the film- makers’ perspectives were influenced by the viewpoint from which they filmed the encounter. We all have our own viewpoint on events in our lives but the more we are able to consider things from others’ viewpoint (shark and albatross) the more likely we are to develop tolerance.

Key to the ability to be flexible in terms of your thinking is the power to relax your mind to such an extent that you are thinking in an open expansive and inventive way. Being focused is important in logical thinking, but when you are highly focused, you tend to filter out extraneous irrelevant information, so your ideas may have a narrow range. Often when we are working on screens for long periods of time, our attention is highly focused in this way and that focus may also impede any tendency to question our own fixed assumptions. On the other hand, when your mind is relaxed, you are likely to be engaged in divergent thinking where you can play with new ideas.

An interesting idea in psychology is the concept of soft fascination which refers to how our brains operate when we spend time in a green space like a forest. Here our attention tends not to be focused in a narrow way. Rather we see the whole vista of the green space and our thinking becomes more divergent and expansive and we are more likely to come up with new ideas. So, spending time in a natural environment can provide opportunities to think through situations and make decisions, to reflect on our experiences and make sense of them and to develop new perspectives on issues in our lives.

Writing can also be a great way to shake up your assumptions. For example, it can be eye opening to write about a conflict situation with another person in your life using the first person from their perspective and using their language. It can help you expand your understanding and get beyond anger and blame.

In Irish there is an old saying ‘Is fearr lúbadh na briseadh’ which means ‘Better to bend than break’. The saying refers to times in our lives when we are tempted to hold our ground, even if it may mean being stubborn or pig-headed instead of being willing to bend in our opinion, to reach out for a joint solution, to compromise.

Try writing about a time in your life when you were willing to bend or describe a time when you did not bend but you wised you had done so. How did things turn out?

(c) Patricia McAdoo

About Five Ways to Better Days:

Five Ways to Better Days is a guide to using expressive writing to achieve health and happiness, bringing the reader through a programme of expressive writing and other important practical mental health and wellbeing strategies. In doing so it focuses on five key areas of positive psychology:

Gratitude: recognition and appreciation for what you already have in your life
Flow: how to immerse yourself in the present moment
Flexible thinking: how to appreciate other viewpoints and become more tolerant
Goals: how to identify what is most emotionally important and practically achievable in your life
Connections: how to value and deepen your connections with others

In an exceptionally practical way, each section of the book provides the reader with writing and non-writing suggestions, practices, ideas and activities to deepen their sense of wellbeing.

Linking the fields of expressive writing and positive psychology in a new and dynamic way, this book provides a practical guide for both the general reader and mental health professionals in counselling, health and social care settings. The practicality of the book also makes it an ideal book for workshops and expressive writing/psychology course material. The techniques provided are based on psychological principles but also on the author’s own knowledge and experience of the rich field of expressive writing.

Five Ways to Better Days is for anyone who wants to use writing to enhance their creativity and their sense of wellbeing, health, resilience and happiness.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Patricia McAdoo is a clinical psychologist and writing facilitator. She provides mental health awareness and wellbeing training in the corporate sector. Patricia is the author of Writing for Wellbeing (Currach Press, 2013) and has experience of print and broadcast media, including interviews on Nationwide and the Last Word, and she has written feature articles for the Sunday Independent and other publications.

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