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How Can Reading Help Us Practice What’s Important?

Steven Topper LCPC 

“Where will you visit first once the pandemic is over?” Many of us have asked this question and been asked this question over the past few months. So many of us are yearning to get back into the universal hobby of traveling. One of the major benefits of travelling, and what compels so many of us to venture out into the world, is that it allows us to see how other people live. On a day-to-day basis, we occupy the same environments and see similar people. It can be exhilarating, fascinating, and educational to see how other people shape their lives. Further, it can offer an opportunity for us to increase psychological flexibility. When we travel, we get to challenge our perceptions and beliefs about how to behave within our own worlds. This can be an opportunity to create new growth in our lives simply by observing and engaging with different cultural traditions. Since the pandemic began, our ability to travel has been greatly diminished, and so many of us feel stuck. However, there may be ways to access some of the benefits of travelling, while valuing the safety and health of our communities and staying home. If travel to different countries and ecosystems allows us to see things from new perspectives, then reading may provide a way into those perspectives without ever leaving our home.

Psychological flexibility is a measure of how many behavioral tools a person has in their toolbox across a broad array of contexts. By experiencing new things, new places, new people, new ways of living, we gain easy access to flexibility tools. Of course, with travel restrictions so many of us have an impoverished opportunity to access those tools. One strategy we may be able to employ to regain that access, with intention, is through reading. Reading, of all sorts, allows for the practice of psychological flexibility in multiple ways. Whether you read fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, or biographies, this action can increase our contact with flexibility. It does this in a few important ways, most notably with the opportunity to see the world through another set of eyes.

In the psychology world, we call seeing the world in a new way perspective taking. When we can see how the world may look, sound, and feel to others, it increases the likelihood that we act flexibly. Knowing how it might feel to ridicule a coworker who struggles with self-confidence may open us up to new, adaptive ways to communicate work responsibilities. Reading allows us to practice holding the perspectives of others, and practice moving between perspectives. Simply reading another persons’ words puts us just a bit outside of ourselves, and often books tell stories about parts of the world we may have minimal access to. We get to see how others might have responded, what thoughts and emotions may have come up for characters or writers, and we also might practice moving between perspectives when books change narrators. All of these things increase our ability to perspective taking and can lead to more psychological flexibility.

Another component that could bolster our flexibility is the concept of committed action. Often, one of the greatest deterrents to psychological flexibility is the private language (our thoughts) we use to describe the world. For instance: Well, I could walk the dog this morning, but it’s so cold and so cozy in bed, I think I’ll ask my partner. This language will likely lead to me staying in bed. A major strategy for when thoughts get in the way of completing tasks is committed action. In this, we stand in commitment of a goal and no excuse or reason is valid enough to stop us. While we may be side tracked from time to time, we are resolute in our commitment to the behaviors we set out. In November, I picked up Tolstoy’s War And Peace and the 1100+ pages felt daunting. I set a goal to complete the book by Christmas Day. And while it certainly wasn’t easy, and wasn’t always what I wanted to do, I stood in commitment and (barely!) accomplished my goal. Setting a timeline, adjusting to life changes, and working a bit each day help us keep our commitments. We can set goals, commit to them, and watch what happens both internally and externally, as a way to practice psychological flexibility.

Finally, reading can be a practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is all about present moment awareness. Specifically, flexible, intentional awareness of the environment right now. It’s important to note that our environment is both external (the room, the people around us, etc.) and internal (our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations). The more contact with the present moment we have, the likelier we are to maintain psychological flexibility. And in this way reading is an intentional, flexible awareness of the words in front of us as we are reading them right now. This act of mindfulness can help us foster increased attention span as well.

         So many behaviors we engage in daily can be shifted and slightly altered to turn into practicing psychological flexibility. Reading with the intention of being mindful, committing to a goal, and perspective taking can be an effective strategy while so many of us are stuck at home. Talk to your therapist to learn more ways to explore small steps to take during this difficult time to move into more psychological flexibility. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

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