Your mind is like a muscle, meaning it’s possible to broaden your mind’s powers in order to improve capacity, ability and skill. Capacity refers to the hardware we need to execute a task and whether the mind can handle that task without excessive stress. Ability refers to whether we can engage in an action to a reasonable level, and skilI refers to the refinement of that ability. In therapy, we often test the differences between these three in order to determine the most effective approach to meeting your goals.
Exploring your mind can also help you to develop increased psychological flexibility and emotional resilience, two key factors that allow your mind to optimally execute all the tasks you ask of it, such as excelling at work, thinking clearly, managing stress, focusing, feeling confident, processing grief, setting goals, connecting with friends, and deepening love relationships. Your mind is a flexible tool that is adaptable to new learning and circumstances. You can grow it, just like you do with your fitness level, so it can do more for you.
Broadening your mind’s powers also depends on extending the neural infrastructure of your brain to match. Luckily, the brain and the mind typically work hand-in-hand: Software updates trigger hardware updates, and vice versa. There is a linear model of mental growth that sees improvement as a function of building up capacity—then ability, then skill. The reality, however, is that mental growth is not so linear. New skill-building, for example, can increase ability and capacity. When you practice new behavior in a relationship, like being supportive when your partner is upset by moving toward them, touching them gently, and saying something kind, it helps rewire your capacity and ability to more easily and naturally be supportive in that way in the future. It’s more accurate to say that the three dimensions of mental growth—capacity, ability and skill—intersect with one another back and forth as you grow. A change in one affects the others.
One approach to broadening your mind’s powers is to expose your mind to challenging experiences so that your mind can adapt to meet those challenges. This is akin to lifting weights at the gym. When lifting, you stress your muscles a little beyond their usual comfort zone so they will grow stronger to meet a similar challenge with more resilience the next time. In regards to mental health, this process is known as exposure therapy.
Since there are many different kinds of exposure techniques, it is important to be gentle and compassionate in your engagement with them. For example, overexposing your mind to things that scare you or make you anxious can be counterproductive—leaving the nervous system more frightened to meet such a challenge than it was initially. In exposing your mind to new challenges, it is important to have enough mental and emotional resources to metabolize a new experience without creating undue fear or overwhelming. If you can titrate difficult experiences enough to meet those challenges in a resourced way, your mind is then able to grow in its capacity, ability and skills.
Another approach to exploring your mind is what’s known as meta-analysis. This type of mental exploration is sometimes practiced in meditation. In some forms of meditation, you work to develop a third-party observer, which is the ability to look at and reflect on yourself as a third-party might. However, this type of observation is sometimes a little too intellectual or dissociative to fully account for the feeling experience of the body. We recommend a variation of this observational capacity which is to build it into your felt sense by expanding your ability to sit with your feelings, rather than developing a conscious lens that observes them from a more intellectual standpoint. By developing an observer capacity within your felt experience, you develop a way of assessing your experience at a meta-level that is embodied, and that helps you have more mental and emotional resources to bring to your experience.
A third way to explore your mind is through the concept of integration. The mind is connected to your brain, body, nervous system, emotions, and relationships. To fully understand the powers of your mind, it can be helpful to observe any discrepancies between parts of your being, like what your heart desires, what your mind focuses on, your body language, and your actions in relationships. Integration also extends to differing qualities of the mind, like being able to move comfortably between emotional and analytic perspectives, or between the context of a situation and its details. Sometimes you’ll notice that a part of you is holding you back despite your intentions for moving forward. This discrepancy between goals and having the machinery of your mind cooperate to achieve them, can benefit from targeted mental training. Using an integrative model of growth helps you get every aspect of your mind and body working in the same direction toward your goals.
Finally, a fourth way to explore your mind is through psychotherapy. Therapy helps you to explore your mind by creating a safe environment in which to explore parts of yourself, perspectives, and life goals. In a secure environment, the mind is able to relax, reflect on itself, and develop new abilities and skills. Working with a therapist you trust has healing benefits from the support and empathy present in the therapy relationship. A therapist can also help you process traumas and limited belief systems that may be holding you back. One such approach is memory reconsolidation, which helps connect positive present-moment experiences to old mental patterns in order to open up new perspectives and possibilities for life moving forward.
These four approaches to mental exploration and developing greater mental resilience can help you increase your mind’s power to actualize your goals and work toward the life you want. The mind is a flexible, trainable tool: If you expose it to the right stimulus with the right support, it can develop the skills you need to have better focus, more confidence and deeper, more fulfilling relationships. Our minds shape our lives in powerful ways. It’s always a good investment to develop and grow your mind to accomplish your goals and make the most of your life experience.
John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at PRESENCE, an integrative wellness center supporting your mental, physical and relationship health so you can heal, grow, and thrive in life through science-based psychotherapy and medicine.