Rigidity versus Flexibility: The Key to Mental Health
Over recent decades the use of rigid language in our thought patterns has become a prominent focus in the understanding of problematic human behavior and emotional functioning. The origins of this theory can be traced back to roots in both Western philosophy, going back to the Greek philosophers discussion of realism, and to Eastern philosophy, relating to the issue of attachment. More recent philosophers, such as Hume (Hume’s guillotine) have also focused on this. In the last century the concept has been brought into psychology and discussed by prominent psychologists including Horney (“the tyranny of should”), Ellis (“demandingness”), Beck (conditional assumptions), and Hayes (“rule governance”).
Such rigid language includes the use of concepts such as shoulds, expectations, musts, have to’s, needs, and oughts.
From a neurocognitive perspective, such rigid language relates to our brains innate tendency to develop simplistic heuristics for the sake of efficiency, however, this can become problematic. This is part of what gives rise to the problems with rigid language. This language results in the development of rules about how things are supposed to work and place unnecessary conditions on how people and things function. They are however subjective and informed by limited information (being our own experience). They are therefore inherently based on a logical fallacy.
Despite this, they often become a basis for predicting the future with absolutistic connotations. They also result in moral connotations and judgements that block acceptance for what is, whether related to the self, others or life more generally. This is what results in over identification with behaviors, events and situations, and in over generalized conclusions. Hence, they give rise to problematic evaluations that contribute to emotional distress.
This has been supported by a number of research studies. In recent decades Steven Hayes and his colleagues have shown the negative consequences of “rule governance” in their study of language. Such associations have also been shown in literature by Daniel David and his colleagues. They have shown a pattern of research demonstrating the relationship between rigid forms of language and dysfunction (emotional distress and behavioral problems). They have also conducted their own studies to confirm the implicit relationship between rigid forms of language and negative evaluations, even when people are unconscious of these connections.
How problematic this rigid language is for any given situation is dependent on a number of different factors. These include how strongly the person believes such thoughts and the proximity to a situation that challenges it. Less strongly held beliefs (or, alternatively stated, those with no emotional attachment) may be “let go of” quickly. For instance, if someone thinks “it should be a nice day to day”, but then it rains, if they have little emotional attachment to the thought then they may move on quickly with no distress. In contrast someone who strongly believes the thought (having a high level of attachment) will likely experience a high level of distress and become stuck on the thought, possibly perceiving their day to be ruined.
In terms of proximity, when more distal to a situation that challenges a belief, such as “I should succeed at the things I do”, a person may be able to state this calmly and even be able to show acceptance for specific situations where they did not live up to the expectation to succeed. This is because the flexible “want” is also present and may be stronger at that time. However, when confronted with a specific situation where they fail, the rigid belief that they “should have succeeded” may be stronger and trigger emotional distress (e.g. depression). Thus the rigid and the flexible versions of the same idea can co-exist within a person, but one may be activated more strongly in a given situation depending upon contextual factors.
With regard to addressing the use of rigid language, it is important to incorporate the above issues into the challenging and reframing of thoughts. In particular, you can’t should on a should to reduce the experience of distress for the individual. That would instead compound their use of rigid language.