What The Heck Is . . . Psychological Flexibility?
While this title might sound a little "heady" for your reading pleasure and like something you'll need a highlighter and dictionary to understand, let me assure you this is not that kind of post.
Psychological flexibility is a fancy term for how to live a rich and meaningful life in the midst of the challenges and struggles that we face as humans. See? That's not so scary ;)
Before we dive into this topic, let's talk about where this term comes from. Psychological Flexibility is the general aim in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (also known as ACT). ACT is an empirically supported style of psychotherapy centered around mindfulness and values, which was created by Steven Hayes.
ACT therapists work with their clients to establish more adaptability in the way that they relate to their struggle, as struggle is an inevitable component to being human. ACT clinicians support their clients to both be able work with tough thoughts, feelings and emotions in the moment and to have clarity of their bigger picture (aka a value inspired life).
Note: In this post, I'll walk you through the "what" of each element. If this information lands for you, check back for future posts on the "how" or techniques!
FUNDAMENTALS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY
One important thing to note is that these elements do not need to be learned, practiced or experienced in any set order. Depending on the challenge or life circumstance, you will lean into different components to open up, be present, and lead a more meaningful life.
Definition: An active awareness of your private experience without trying to alter the frequency or content.
Acceptance is part of the antidote to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is when we try to control unwanted thoughts, emotions, memories and bodily sensations. Very often it only offers a short-term relief from discomfort, and can also cause harm in the long-run. Thus the awareness of our inner events invites us to recognize when we are triggered into avoidance mode and opens us up to make more adaptive choices.
Another thing to note is that acceptance is not resignation. Many of my clients ask me: "well if I accept this feeling, doesn't that mean I'm resigning to letting it rule my life?".
Remember, acceptance is an active recognition of our feelings and not a surrendering of control to our emotions and thoughts. When we practice acceptance, we actually give ourself more space to unhook from the control of our inner experiences.
Definition: The shift in how we interact with thoughts by creating contexts that decreases the impact of their unhelpful functions.
One's inner experience do not always tell us not hard and fast truths. Let me say that again; your inner experience do not always tell us not hard and fast truths.
This is not to say that your thoughts, feeling and emotions are false and invalid. Rather, it is important to get curious about your inner landscape to discern what parts of your experience are true and what parts may be old stories, default patterns, etc.
This is where defusion techniques are so helpful; they diminishes the believability of private events, which amplifies our likelihood to choose value-driven actions.
Definition: Ongoing non-judgmental access to our inner and outer experiences (i.e. psychological and environmental events) as they occur.
When many people hear the phrase"being present", they conjure up images of someone sitting peacefully, in a tranquil space, deep within a meditative state. However, the kind of presence we talk about within psychological flexibility is one that we can drop into in any given environment and within any given state of mind.
A present mindset asks us to use language as a way to observe and describe our experiences, rather than to predict, control and judge them. In this way - we can always contact the here and now moment.
Definition: The conscious experiencing of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions versus the identification
Another way to say this is that you are not your thoughts, emotions and feelings. For example, imagine you just had a really tough conversation with your boss at work and you left feeling discouraged and frustrated. Just because you are experiencing emotions like frustration, it does not mean you are a bad and hopeless employee, let alone a bad and hopeless person. The content of your inner experiences does not make up who you are as a human being.
Instead, be aware of the flow of your experiences without attachment or investment. Lean into defusion and acceptance to adapt and be flexible within difficult situations.
Definition: Chosen qualities of purposive action that may shift and change throughout the course of our life
Fun fact: You never need to justify your values. Notice if you use words like "should", "supposed to", "ought" to describe your values. If you catch yourself doing this, it's likely that you are holding onto superimposed values a.k.a. someone else's values that they put on you.
Also, values are different than goals. While goals can be achieved and checked off, values are not an end result. Instead, your values are like a compass that guides the actions and choices in your life. Think about it . . . if friendship is one of your values, it's not like one day you will be able to say: "There - I achieved it! I did friendship!".
On the flip side, the you can use the value of friendship to help inform what choices and decisions to make in order to live into this value each and every day.
Definition: A pattern of intentional action informed by chosen values that ultimately create a full and rich life.
The last component of psychological flexibility that we'll talk about is committed action. As you work to create new behaviors, you will likely run up against psychological barriers; your mind will push back, try new tricks to hook you, and keep you in your default as a way to protect you. This where you really get to lean on acceptance, defusion, presence, self as context and your values to create new ways of being.
This is where setting small and manageable goals can be very helpful*
* remember I'll go over the how committed action like goal setting in a future post, so stay tuned :)
This is tough work, so know what your resources are. Get clear on which friends and family members you can ask for support and care. Reach out to a therapist to get help navigating this process. Offer yourself the resource of grace, kindness, and practice self-compassion.
I hope this short guide offers you some insight into leading a more meaningful and rich life. As always, let me know if there's anyway I can be one of your resources. I'm here to help however I can so don't hesitate to send me note.