Individuals who are open to experience are able to listen to themselves and to others and to experience what is happening without feeling threatened.
Brian Thorne (a person-centred therapist)
Openness is often associated with either open-mindedness or frankness. These meanings are addressed in the areas Inner structure and Intrinsic relationships respectively. Here, the term signifies permeability between oneself and the world. Therefore, this is not only about cognitive openness or talking openly to others, but openness to our experiences in general. Being able to regulate openness can significantly affect our quality of life, so this will be the main focus of this area.
What openness is
It may sometimes feel as if we have ‘holes’ or ‘cracks’ in our personality. These are usually the result of unresolved personal conflicts or unhealed wounds and they make it difficult to become a harmonious whole. They often cause oversensitivity and tension, which in turn lead to putting barriers between oneself and the world. Openness is different. It refers to the permeability of the person as a whole that facilitates exchanges with the environment. Openness enables us to transform sensations into personal experiences – in other words, to internalise the external world. This is how we make an experience our own.
Why it is important to regulate openness
Some experiences can increase our energy while some can drain it away, so being able to regulate to which ones and to what extent you open up may be important. This is not straightforward though. If we are not careful, certain situations can make us open up or close down when we don’t want to or more than we want to. Also we may develop the habit of being too open or too closed, and respond to situations inadequately in this respect. We will see soon what we can do to be more in charge of this ability, but we ought to consider first why, when and to what extent to open up.
Why to open up
The main reason why it is good to open up is that it enriches life (the quality of your experience) – without it, even an eventful or abundant life may feel unfulfilling. Being overly closed allows little exchange, which is associated with feelings of boredom and emptiness. Openness also has further benefits:
- It enables you to recognise new possibilities – if you are not open, you are likely to miss some opportunities.
- It contributes to learning and personal development.
- It can enhance creativity.(1)
- Being closed most of the time can create an inner pressure, which may lead to acting inadequately (e.g. being too quick or too slow to engage with the situation).
- Being closed may also make others feel excluded and may affect the quality of relationships.
When and to what extent to open up?
No answer to this question can be generalised as it depends on situation, your personality and the context. Let’s consider, for example, to what extent and why you should be open to difficult, sad or painful situations (e.g. homelessness, wars or famine in remote countries, ecological disasters). Obviously, ignoring them makes you less informed and less able to make good judgements. Furthermore, openness in this respect can motivate you to do something.
On the other hand, openness can make you feel despondent if you cannot do anything, ‘It is none of my business’ or ‘nothing I can do about that’ are most common justifications for not being open to difficult issues. Even if you don’t think in that way, you may sometimes be energy depleted or too emotionally vulnerable to face them. So, you need to make a choice from one situation to another if and to what extent you will open up, taking into account how strong you are and whether or not you can do anything. Bear in mind that we usually can do something more often than it seems at first glance (e.g. we can at least bring an issue to the attention of others) so it is always worthwhile thinking about it or asking around before concluding that we are powerless.
How to open up and close down
Nice experiences and positive emotions open us up spontaneously and reversely, harsh experiences and negative emotions tend to close us down. These things are difficult to invoke at will though, so let us see what else we can do in both cases.
- Avoid making assumptions and judgements in advance (e.g. ‘this event/person is going to be boring’).
- Have positive expectations – expect that you will find something valuable in your experience.
- Use your imagination (imagine, for example, opening the curtains or the window in front of your forehead).
- Relax – physical and mental tension makes us rigid and more difficult to open up.
- Exercise your natural curiosity – get interested, reach out.
- Look around, rather than just in front of you.
- Try to reduce the chatter in your mind (do you really need to think about your report while playing with your kids?). This chatter is the greatest barrier to fuller experience.
This and the following exercises should increase your ability to regulate a degree of openness.
Opening up: with the help of the above suggestions, open up and allow the situation to gradually draw you out. Don’t force anything, just absorb any sensations that you are experiencing in a relaxed state and without making any judgements. You can practise this in various situations but leave those in which you have to interact with others for later, when you complete all the exercises.
If you find it difficult to open up, it would be worth examining why this is the case. It may be simply a habit, but it may have a deeper cause, such as past fears. Consider that even if they were justified then, they may be blocking you now unnecessarily.
Sometimes we can be opened too much, which can make us feel exposed, vulnerable, overwhelmed and even hurt. This especially applies to highly sensitive persons, but learning how to close down at will can be useful to everybody, as we all find ourselves occasionally in situations that can be overwhelming (e.g. very busy or crowded places). Here are a few suggestions:
- Lower your expectations and prepare mentally, as a disappointment or unpleasant surprise can open you up when you don’t want or more than you want.
- Shut down mentally: if you find it hard to do so, try to imagine pulling the shatters down in front of you.
- Create mental armour: imagine a shield or armour that encloses and protects you. It doesn’t matter if it is real or not, it can still have an effect (as an imagined spider can).
- Ignore whatever is going on around you – if you find it hard to do so, focus on a distant object (e.g. a cloud or tree outside).
- Use tunnel vision: just focus on what is in front of you. This is what, for example, many commuters do spontaneously in crowded stations, in order to avoid sensory overload.
- Find something to think about to keep yourself in your head (e.g. calculate your taxes or make a shopping list).
Closing down: experiment with the above suggestions till you find a combination that suits you best. Any situation (e.g. waiting for a train) can be used for this purpose.
Both – and
This last exercise is a combination of the above two and it will not only improve your control, but will also crystallise the difference between these states.
Openness control: open and close a few times in the same situation and monitor the effects. Start first with situations that do not involve others and when you feel more in control of this ability, try it in social situations.
(1) Rogers, C. (1954) ‘Toward a Theory of Creativity’ in Parnes, S. J. and Harding, H. F. (eds) A Source Book for Creative Thinking. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1962, p.67.