Mental Health / April 25, 2022 / by Barney Abramson

We should prioritize mental flexibility over mental toughness. Here’s why

Many of us grew up in an era when “toughness” was something to be proud of. We wore our toughness on our sleeves like a badge of honor. Mental toughness is how we are often expected to respond to pressure, whether at work or in our personal lives. The tough mindset may get you through some difficult moments, but suppressing our emotions during difficult times can lead to procrastination, poor performance, and self-sabotage over time.

The mental flexibility of the wise man permits him to keep an open mind and enables him to readjust himself whenever it becomes necessary for a change. 

– Malcom X

When I was nine years old my parents moved our family to a new neighborhood. During my first encounter with the local neighborhood kids, I attempted to show them how tough I was by climbing my neighbor’s metal fence. When I got to the very top, my neighbor began shouting at me to “get down from there right now!”. Faced with his rage, I panicked and fell straight to the ground. The impact took the wind out of me and left me dumbfounded.

I laid on the pavement for what seemed like hours, with no one coming to my aid. My own thoughts were racing through my head. I told myself, “Stand up, and don’t you dare cry.” After coming to my senses, I got up off the pavement, brushed myself off, and went about my business as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, I was hurting inside.

Does that ring a bell? If not, substitute the neighborhood for your job, the local neighborhood kids for your coworkers, and the next-door neighbor for your boss. Is it starting to feel more familiar now?

Mental toughness teaches us to over-idolize confidence, determination, and control, while also ignoring our feelings and allowing fear to motivate us. We are expected to respond to pressure by becoming mentally ‘stronger’ or ‘tougher’. Still today the concept is widely promoted by athletes, adventurers, entrepreneurs, and the like.

Mental flexibility, on the other hand, exists at the intersection of high performance and improved mental health. It teaches us to quickly switch between strategies based on the demands of each situation and make decisions on how to act in accordance with our values.

In a study on mental flexibility led by Steven C. Hayes, co-founder of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), 6,628 participants performed a mental flexibility test. Participants who scored higher in mental flexibility were less likely to have anxiety and depression, performed better at work, were promoted at a higher rate, and had better overall mental health.

I’m fascinated by this topic, and I’ve recently started adopting some of these techniques at work and in my personal life, and I can already attest to their usefulness.

In addition to my postings about graphic design, personal branding, and the life and struggles of a creative director, I intend to talk more about mental flexibility, mindfulness, and the self.

If you want to learn more about mental flexibility, you can start by reading How to perform well under pressure by Josephine Perry. I recommend reading Steven C. Hayes’ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change for a deeper dive.

  • Carlos Pujols September 8, 2022

    Great article! I wholeheartedly agree. There has been an interesting shift in the last decade or so about the importance of mindfulness, not just in our careers, but in our whole lives. I feel that mental flexibility is more so an emotional flexibility, which is where the idea of emotional intelligence comes in. This is something that is really not new at all. It’s not just a buzzword. For thousands of years, mindfulness, mental flexibility, surrendering the ego, etc. has been practiced and refined. It is only that in today’s world, we needed alternative solutions to preexisting problems, and so we looked at the practices of the East for the solution.

    Being mindful is where it all starts! From there, you have power to change for the better.

  • Barney September 8, 2022

    Great observations Carlos. Thanks for sharing.

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