Rigidity versus Flexibility

As Bruce Lee said, “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.

Rigid: stiff or unyielding, not pliable or flexible, firmly set or fixed, not willing to change opinions or behaviours, precise and accurate in procedures.

Flexible: capable of bent usually without breaking, susceptible of modification or adaption, willing to change or to try different things, ready capability to adapt to new.

As Bruce Lee said, “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Impact of Cognitive Rigidity

The anxiety that’s caused by this type of rigid, inflexible thinking can cause many behaviour challenges. Rigid thinking leads to challenging behaviours such as:

Actively resists any form of change

Attempts to control all situations

Resistance to following the lead of others – viewed as strongly oppositional behaviour or pathological demand avoidance

Repetitive self-stimulation

Insistence on following strict, ritualistic routines

Difficulty moving on from strong negative feelings

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility is the awareness of the fact that every problem or situation has a number of solutions or appropriate responses.

Any time we problem-solve or try to analyze and understand the opinions and perspectives of others we are using cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility also strongly relates to having or developing coping skills and stress management skills.

It’s also the brain’s ability to switch from thinking about one thing to thinking about something else quickly. This is why kids can sometimes get “stuck” on one thing and aren’t able to switch it off or be redirected.

How to Reduce Rigidity & Improve Flexible Thinking

There are strategies that encourage more flexible thinking, and also tools that you can use to help be more tolerant to change. These pointers also help reduce cognitive rigidity and improve flexible thinking skills.

1. Explain What is Happening

First of all, it’s important to be aware that rigid behaviors are often a result of understanding the world around us– especially social norms, and other peoples’ intentions and perspectives. Explicitly evaluate situations, expectations, or other people’s actions to help understand. Be clear and detailed, so there’s no room for confusion or doubt.

2. Use a Calendar

This helps prepare them for change, while the calendar shows very concretely when events are happening. This type of concrete information is often helpful in alleviating the anxiety that surrounds unexpected events.

3. Create a Change Board

Some situations and changes cannot be predicted and recorded on a calendar. For these circumstances, you can use a “change board”.

Purchase a magnetic whiteboard to hang on the fridge. Record anything happening that day that is outside of your regular routine.

4. Encourage Flexible Thinking with Games

Try some of the following game ideas to promote cognitive flexibility.

5. Try Doing Everyday Tasks Differently

If you prefer to do everyday things in the same order and the same way, try encouraging small changes to help adapt to different options.

6. Brainstorm Together

In order to problem-solve, you must be able to think of at least two possible solutions to your problem. If you have a rigid thinking that task can be difficult.

Work on making brainstorms together to help think about different options and improve problem-solving skills. Start with easy situations and build up to more challenging problems, or even real problems that you are currently facing.

7. Frontloading

Frontloading is a way of preparing yourself ahead of time for what to expect, and also for possible scenarios and what you can do.

It’s not perfect because you can’t cover every possible scenario and outcome. But you can prepare yourself for likely situations.

Frontloading helps you prepare for multiple possibilities instead of potentially getting stuck on one expected outcome.

8. Reassure your Safety

You may feel as though you have no control over their world and begin to question their safety.

During meltdowns and times of stress, you can go into “survival mode”. There is a perceived threat. Comfort yourself through any distress that happens with unexpected changes.

9. Praise yourself for Showing Flexibility

Make sure that anytime you do see yourself showing flexible behaviour, praise you!

Point out what you did, and acknowledge how challenging that probably was. It’s important to build your confidence and become more resilient in stressful situations.

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