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A Vigorous, Mentally Fit Life Means Honing Core Abilities

Research-based habits can help make life’s advantages come your way.

Key points

  • Accepting another person's influence is a sign of mental flexibility and positive relationship skills.
  • Power struggles and insisting upon sameness both lead to high-conflict situations.
  • Clinical disorders can create struggle with change, yet embracing new tactics can lead to personal growth.

Messages of Mental Health Awareness Month should live on this year. If we forget what we learn, it’s harder to achieve wellness.

In nearly 19 years of counseling minors, adults, couples, and families, I’ve seen four skills—abilities really—that lead to advantages at home, work, school, and most definitely in relationships.

Without these abilities, struggle ensues and people meet disadvantages. I say during an intake that the work one does outside therapy determines the gain and gets to symptom relief faster.

Adverse childhood events, traumas, or misfortunes can linger, yet everyone has personal agency. The extent to which one uses it, for the good of self and others, takes up many a therapy session.

With that agency, adopt these abilities and mentally strengthen life.

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Be kind to your mind every day, every week, every month
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The Ability to Communicate Well

John Gottman, Ph.D., began research into what made couples successful in 1972. Twenty years later, he and colleagues predicted with 93.6 percent accuracy which married couples would divorce.1

Four behaviors—criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness—became predictors of failure. These aren’t germane only to couples but also can tank relationships between co-workers, friends, in-laws, siblings, or any others.

To communicate well, one must eschew the silent treatment. Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D., and husband John Gottman, Ph.D., just released Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict Into Connection. It’s a treasure trove of research and includes using I-messages. The free Gottman Card Deck App contains "Expressing Needs" to master such phrasing.

“I need some alone time,” “I need to hear…,” or “I need us to spend more time with my family” all start sentences to express a positive need. I-messages replace the accusatory “You did…” or “You never…,” which tend to put people on the defensive.

The Ability to Accept Influence

If you have a partner who insists upon his way, trouble lurks. The ability to accept another’s influence is a sound house strategy as well as one of the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

To accept input, realize that you aren't always right or perfect and that deeply held life visions must be tweaked. Well-adjusted humans are able to flex their minds and behavior and accept other ideas.

The inability to accept another perspective or discuss differences may signal a power struggle. These exist between spouses and even in-laws, and at work, with employer/employee, co-workers, or staff/students.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches how to dispute irrational beliefs; this rights most impasses. Yet, when one cannot negotiate or accept input, defensiveness, criticism, and contempt quickly follow.

I’ve often pointed out to couples that two parties can each be right. The lightbulb goes on. Their expressions signal this relationship-changing revelation. As couples embrace this, their struggle typically ends.

The Ability to Work Through Conflict

Conflict exists in any relationship. It doesn’t have to be adversarial or mean it’s a bad match; conflict shows us to be alive.

Disagreements = conflict—between husband and wife, one spouse to one in-law or the set of them— are real. Two co-workers. A principal and teacher. On and on. These combinations can work well unless one of the parties fears conflict and refuses to talk.

Those who struggle, wrestle hard for their way, and refuse influence require greater emotional work to balance irrational beliefs or troublesome personality traits. Life is rarely all or nothing. Therapy that uses CBT leads to a growth mindset.

In youth, conflict-avoiders may not have seen adults work successfully through problems. They may have been indulged and gotten their way more often than not.

Sometimes, they have unsavory motives.

The Angry Child lists typical argument goals: to win, to keep the peace, to destroy, to vent, for the sport of it, to share information, and to solve a problem. The first five unsavory ones spell doom—to win signals the power struggle, and to keep the peace shows this inability to work through conflict.

The last two goals, however, may help create win-win resolutions. As the global pandemic began, I wrote Problem Solving Your Stress Away with a mnemonic created, the second step, a prompt to cultivate not one option, but many.

As an adjective, high-conflict describes the antithesis of problem-solving. Brains behave far from tenets discussed here.

Often, superiority and put-downs enter the mix, making others wonder how normal rules of engagement no longer apply, according to Amanda Ripley, author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out. Her book includes research-based citations.

Ripley’s appendices point out that high conflict, especially absolute, grandiose, or violent language or actions, carries its own momentum that becomes self-perpetuating.

The Appendix II "Good Conflict List" includes humility, fluidity, different emotions, and recovery. Ripley's "High Conflict List" spells rigidity (one’s own way), the same emotion that doesn’t budge, and chronic stress reactions (rumination, poor sleep).

The Ability to Change

“Change cannot be avoided. It’s an integral part of life,” says Nancy Christie, who wrote The Gifts of Change long before others jumped on the change-accepting bandwagon.

Opportunities that change us can be large, such as an illness, a death, job loss or a shift in industry, or a relationship that seemed fun and free that now confines us.

Nancy Christie reports that a chance conversation with a stranger, an unexpected gift, or even experiences that don’t work out the way we first thought can also serve as fodder for change.

Clinically, those with autism, sensory integration disorder, or chronic mental illness experience difficulty with change, but even these populations can learn to navigate it.

“Without change, there is no growth,” Christie says. “We must make the most of changes that come into our lives…and use them to learn more about ourselves.”

To sum this up: Embrace good communication skills. Accept other people's influence. Sit with conflict, which provides a chance to strengthen ties.

And, if you struggle with change, start small. Be less stubborn. Embrace difference vs. sameness. Allow someone else his or her way. Get to know the stories of those who had change forced upon them and learn how they landed successfully.

Copyright © 2024 by Loriann Oberlin, MS


Buehlman, K.T., Mordechai, Gottman, J.M., Katz, L.F., How a Couple Views Their Past Predicts Their Future: Predicting Divorce from an Oral History Interview (University of Washington, 1992)

Gottman, J.S. and Gottman, J.M. Fight Right: How Successful Couples Turn Conflict into Connection (New York: Harmony/Random House, 2024)

Ripley, A. High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021)

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