Openness is a skill, but it is also a personality trait – if you have ever taken a personality test, one of the things they’re measuring is openness. There are a lot of personality tests out there, but the ones I am thinking of are the Big Five, MBTI, and Enneagram.
In the interest of openness, I am going to share with you that I am an INTJ, 5 wing 1/9, and an 88 on the Openness scale of the Big Five. My current favorite therapy modality is RO-DBT, which stands for Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy. All of this helps illustrate why I think openness (as well as mindfulness and compassion) are so important.
There are aspects of both nature and nurture involved here.
This article covers a lot of the Positive Psychology aspects of Openness, so no need to repeat that all here.
As a person
I am very attached to my openness – to new people, new experiences, new ideas, new food. A friend once told me that I was a bumblebee or a butterfly or a hummingbird (now I cannot recall) because I was the only one at the dinner who tried the tasting menu while they were all avoiding something (meat, gluten, onions, something). Though that was years ago, I still remember the dinner and how much I enjoyed it, which I attribute in part to the ambiance, part to the food and wine pairing, part to the company, and part to the compliment (though I am not entirely sure she considered it a compliment). The word ‘open’ has interesting connotations to different people – about tradition, safety, politics, and all kinds of other things – so while it is almost entirely positive to me, it is not always so with others.
As a therapist
I think openness translates most into not being judgmental. About anything. Supervisees and colleagues used to be surprised at my willingness to allow clients to talk about anything.
Everyone has their own limits, blind spots, and reactions, and that is just normal. I had one colleague who disliked working with hoarders. And another who couldn’t handle some of the BDSM stuff a client wanted to talk about. There is nothing wrong with that, it just means they would not be a great fit for those clients – nothing more.
As an eating disorder therapist, there is no conversation about puke or poop or periods or hormones that I have not had. Admittedly, this is mostly with people struggling with eating disorders and the various issues that go with that, but also encompsses talk about weight, body image, mood, anxiety, sex, relationships, and anything else that might come up. I will admit, if you are talking about cruelty towards others, I might have a problem. I still remember a client trying to learn radical acceptance who read an article about animal abuse – there are limits, and that is one of mine. I just cannot bring myself to accept that, and I do not think that is what the exercise was really about – almost everyone else was working on accepting traffic or politics. Some of my other limits have to do with gross smells and picking at your feet while you are in my office.
Whatever they said, whatever they were worried about revealing, I can guarantee that the person sitting across from me judged themselves way more harshly and with more venom than I could muster. I see no need to judge them. I have no desire to judge or be judged for any of that. Everyone has limits, and you have to trust me to tell you mine so I can trust you to be honest in return while you are in the therapy session.
Being open to new ideas helps – I really do believe that each person’s experience is valid. I also believe that each person’s experience is unique.
There are always at least three sides to the truth.
Everyone deserves to be heard. And validated. And understood. None of those require judgment, or even acceptance, on my part.
In RO-DBT, openness speaks to connection and to flexibility – if you are interested, here is a video from Dr. Jennifer May about the first RO-DBT lesson. Cognitive flexibility is so important, and predictive of all kinds of things – from response to stress, resilience, and happiness to our ability to access our memory, dementia, degree of neuroplasticity and level of executive functioning (or our ability to think). It is a key to learning and creativity.
From a therapy point of view, we all have a tendency to descend into all or nothing thinking – it is one of the 12 cognitive distortions from traditional CBT therapy, and we all do it. Especially when we are stressed, overwhelmed, tired, struggling, etc. I go back to the perspective issue with this one and think of photography – if you have ever used an enlarger or black and white film, you know that there is rarely actual black or actual white in a photograph. Go ahead and find a black and white photo – it is all shades of gray. The world reminds us all the time and yet we tend to forget that things are rarely as black and white as we would like them to be.
Take something like values – if you take your top three values, you need to rank them, because they will rarely all be aligned with any big or difficult decision. Every day I have to weigh my value of authenticity and honesty with compassion and openness. All shades of gray…
So cognitive flexibility allows us to hold on to our integrity and honor our values in varying life circumstances without that constant push and pull of absolutes. It is a balancing act. Like standing on a balance board – constant adjustment to change.
To interact with other sentient beings, we need to be able to keep adjusting, and we need flexibility to connect.
The more open we are, the more options for connection we have. That part is just math. The more nuanced part is that no one likes to be judged or invalidated, but everyone wants to be right. That doesn’t work out well.
In couples therapy, I often tell people (I got this from Gottman) that an effective compromise that actually solves a problem means that everyone is [at least somewhat] unhappy. Yep, you read that right. If you think you compromised and you did not give anything up, think again – the other person gave in. Long term, that will disconnect you from others. There has to be flexibility to maintain a balance in relationships. It is impossible to connect without flexibility and compromise.
To be clear, there are big boundaries, or values, that you will hopefully not need to compromise on. For the most part, though, it is the little things that people argue about incessantly. The things that couples argue about the most are household chores, money, parenting, sex, and in-law families. These often are little things, but constant – called ‘perpetual’ problems – that you have to manage. They aren’t things that will just go away, they are things that happen every day.
How to be more open
OK, so we understand why openness is a good thing and why we need it to be more creative and have better relationships, and how it works in therapy. Now, how do you get more of it?
First thing, try thinking about your own biases, your own initial reactions – it is important to accept the idea that our perceptions are inherently biased, and that is OK. Everyone sees something different when they look at an inkblot.
Next, think about the degree that you engage in confirmation bias or that all or nothing thinking. We need to know that we don’t know what we don’t know. We need to take responsibility for our own receptivity – there are always new things to learn. We are all human, we all make mistakes, and we are all wrong sometimes.
Last, remember that no one can make you be more open or flexible. It has to be something you want and are willing to work on. If we are open to learning, then we are more open to connection.