When was the last time you changed your mind?
Not about something “small,” like what to wear for work or what to eat for lunch.
I mean, when was the last time you changed your mind about something you genuinely, truly, 100% believed was true and had constructed some part of your identity around believing?
If you can’t think of a time you did that, you’re not alone.
Humans don’t like to change our minds.
We want to believe we are (and always were!) right.
When our beliefs are challenged, we tend to experience cognitive dissonance, dismiss the new belief outright, and double down on our original belief.
There are scientific studies backing this up.
When presented with evidence of climate change, people who don’t already believe in it tend to respond to evidence by clinging even tighter to climate change denial.
We would all like to think we aren’t this person, but the science doesn’t back us up.
It’s not because there’s anything wrong with you. Your brain is working as it evolved to work.
Brains like to be certain more than they like to be right, because there’s an exhausting number of things to think about in the world and if we reconsidered everything every time we thought about anything, we’d never get anything done.
But just because this tendency is helpful in the extreme doesn’t mean we should let the system run unsupervised.
As we see with climate change and Covid deniers, the world has evolved too and the opposite is now true: too much certainty can actually be dangerous.
Even if you’re not anti-science, chances are you have some long-held negative beliefs about yourself that you are clinging to without even realizing it.
- I can’t make money as an artist
- I can’t find someone to love who loves me back
- I’m not cut out to be a leader
- I don’t have the right personality to own a business
- I’m financially irresponsible
- I’m bad at public speaking
- I can’t develop close relationships
When you double down on your beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary, you’re displaying mental rigidity.
But you can shift these stubborn beliefs by practicing something I call “mental flexibility.”
Mental flexibility is the skill of training your brain to be open to new ideas, thoughts, and perspectives.
Mental flexibility allows us to sit with the discomfort of cognitive dissonance without losing our sh*t.
Which means: Being able to adapt to new information, whether it’s about the world around us or our own capabilities.
Because in order to shift your beliefs, you have to be willing to hold two competing thoughts or ideas at the same time.
To look at a circumstance from a number of different perspectives and accept that it is possible to believe your current perspective is true while also holding the possibility that a new perspective could be true, too.
To accept that this entire process will feel TERRIBLE because it goes against millennia of conditioning, and do it anyway because rigidity is the enemy of growth.
Why is this process so difficult?
Because it’s more than just changing one thought.
When we have a belief, our brains build entire systems around that belief.
It’s not just that you never thought to believe you can make money as an artist. It’s that you already subconsciously believed the opposite – that you CAN’T make money as an artist. And you likely found evidence to support that belief and rejected evidence to the contrary.
It’s not just that it never occurred to you to believe you can have an amazing romantic relationship. It’s that you already subconsciously believed this was not possible for you and you’ve unconsciously created tons of evidence through your dating choices.
That’s why you can’t just reject all your current beliefs and exchange them for new ones in one go.
You have to shift a belief slowly by introducing a new, contradictory thought into the mix, and being willing to experience beliefs on and off until you’ve practiced your new belief so much that the old one is irrelevant to you.
This looks like:
Believing that you have to be a starving artist AND believing in the possibility for you to be a wealthy one.
Believing you can’t have an amazing romantic relationship AND believing that you might be wrong about that.
Entertaining possibilities is not dangerous.
It’s rigidity that is dangerous.
Rigid structures crack under pressure.
Flexible structures bend and adapt.
If you are mentally flexible, you can lean into the discomfort you feel when someone offers you a thought that contradicts your own.
You can breathe through whatever feelings you experience.
You can examine the new thought with curiosity.
You can know that just looking at a thought, just exploring it, does not mean you have to accept it and believe it unless you choose to.
You can know that by being willing to look at new beliefs openly and honestly is the precise skill that will help you grow into the next version of yourself.
Growing requires us to challenge some of our most fundamental beliefs about ourselves. And this feels terrible.
But think of it like a physical stretch.
You don’t get flexible hips by just feeling relaxed. You get them by pushing your body past where it naturally goes, bit by bit.
You don’t just get a flexible brain just by feeling comfortable. You get it by developing the skill of holding contradictory ideas or thoughts over and over.
The more you are willing to adopt a new thought even when it contradicts your current beliefs, the more radically your life will change.
The more mentally flexible you are, the less time it will take to shift your beliefs – and the more you will see possibilities you never even dreamed of.