What Causes Rigid Thinking?

The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once suggested that sanity depends upon the capacity to experience doubt; by definition, rigid thinkers find this extraordinarily difficult. Rigidity sometimes gets mistaken for decisiveness or leadership, but in reality, true decision-making and genuine leadership require great flexibility of thought. The contemporary Jungian analyst, Andrew Samuels suggests that rigid thinking arises as a flight from disorientating confusion, a confusion the psychoanalyst Eric Brenman believes causes enormous anxiety.

  1. A Protective Shield

    • Parents of very young children shield them from the baffling complexity of the world, carefully filtering the stimuli conveyed by the environment into manageable "doses." Psychoanalytic studies suggest that failures in this parental function, or failures in the ability to internalize a protective, loving parent as a core part of the developing mind, lead to major cognitive and emotional disturbances in later childhood and adulthood. Without protective filtering, the infant mind gets besieged by incomprehensible stimuli.

    Emergency Defenses

    • What happens when an immature mind receives input it hasn't yet acquired the resources to process? The Hungarian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who made painstaking clinical observations of troubled children, found that they resort to extreme "emergency operations" or "primitive defenses" in their minds. One portentous emergency operation she described, "splitting," involves a desperate attempt to cleave the upsetting, painful feelings and perceptions apart from calming comforting ones. Entrenched splitting processes in the mind block the integration necessary for true learning.

    Splitting or Integration?

    • Evaluating reality hinges on bearing good and bad experiences long enough to learn from them and make sound judgments. But excessive splitting interferes calamitously with this process; "bad" experiences get ejected from the mind immediately and pinned or "projected" on to an external source -- a scapegoat, effectively -- rather than studied and assessed. The fantasy of splitting occurs in an instant; realistic learning takes longer. Bearing discomfort fosters flexible, nuanced thinking and intelligent reality-testing; splitting and projection engender rigid, reactive pseudo-thought.

    Rigid Thought and Splitting

    • When persistent and unalleviated, splitting engenders a rigid pattern of so-called "thinking," although "primitive labeling" might more accurately describe the result. In short, the greater the degree of splitting, the weaker the ability to stay with uncomfortable experiences becomes, radically compromising the ability to learn from them in the process. In extreme cases, unabated splitting results in massive mental disturbance such as schizophrenia (literally, the splitting of the mind into bizarre and incoherent fragments).

    The Value of Ambivalence

    • The ability to simultaneously hold contrasting experiences, conflicting feelings and incompatible thoughts in mind results in ambivalence, the ability to study the full dimensions of a conflict. Out of this precious capacity, love and empathy for human complexity and conflict grows. When the capacity for ambivalent contemplation succumbs to splitting, rigidity, narrow-mindedness and, all too often, cruelty ensues. Habitual, inflexible certainty -- an anxiety-driven aversion to doubt -- suggests a deep-seated underlying fear and confusion.

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  • "Playing and Reality"; D.W. Winnicott; 1971
  • "The Plural Psyche: Personality, Morality and the Father"; Andrew Samuels; 1989
  • "Cruelty and Narrowmindedness"; Eric Brenman; 1985
  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images

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