When you hear the word flexible, what comes to mind? A quick Google Image search will show you pictures of people in yoga pants posing in various positions, stretching and lengthening their limbs and bodies. We often associate the word flexible with exactly this – the body. What we don’t usually consider in this understanding of flexibility is that it can also be applied to the mind. After all, the mind is very much a part of the body.
This concept is known as psychological flexibility, and throughout this four part series, I will be introducing you to what psychological flexibility is, how to know if you lean toward inflexibility of the mind, and strategies to support you in being able to cope with and be flexible to life’s ups and downs.
I want to pose a series of true or false questions for you to answer in the next few seconds (don’t think, just do!):
- People who have control of their lives can control how they feel
- If I don’t like how I’m feeling or what I’m thinking, I try to ignore it or push it away
- I will be happy if I can get rid of negative thoughts and feelings
- I have to be in control of my thoughts and feelings to be successful
- If I can’t get rid of bad thoughts and feelings, it means that I’m weak
- It’s not okay to feel anxious and I try hard to avoid it
(adapted from Harris, 2009’s The Happiness Trap)
If you answered true to the majority of these questions, then congratulations! You are likely to be more psychologically inflexible. Wait, what? Psychological inflexibility can be defined as an individual’s internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and memories) acting as the primary motivator for behavior in lieu of values (Bond et al., 2011).
This may look like feeling sad and down and canceling plans with friends you were really looking forward to because “I’m not in the mood”. As you can see from this example, the feeling (sadness) and thought (“I’m not in the mood”) are what is motivating the behavior (canceling plans with friends). And while canceling plans with friends every so often isn’t a big deal, if that’s how I automatically respond to these thoughts and feelings, I might find myself canceling a lot more plans than I really want to in the long run.
Research has shown that the more psychologically inflexible someone is, the more likely they are to experience symptoms of depression and sleep disturbances (Kato, 2016). So again, if you answered true to the majority of the questions above…..take a breath…..and know that you are within the majority of the human population! That’s right – our innate desire to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings is just that – innate. Human beings have survived the test of time by being very skillful at avoiding danger, pain, and by predicting and solving problems (even before they happen!) (Harris, 2009). And while this instinct has been highly effective at maintaining our survival as a human species, some of us in this day and age find that we are consistently searching for things that make us “happy”, taking us away from what is important and meaningful to us – here, right now.
We have many experiences in our lives that are full, rich, and meaningful that don’t necessarily make us happy. Take parenting for example – while being a parent can be very rewarding and bring joy, excitement, and wonder – it is also very frustrating, exhausting, and full of “negative” emotions! Life in general is full of all sorts of experiences (pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant) – a lot of which are out of our control (Harris, 2009). And according to Harris (2009), the more effort and energy we put into avoiding and suppressing unpleasant thoughts and feelings, the less energy we have to connect and engage with what really matters to us, deep in our hearts. In order to practice psychological flexibility, we first need to let go of the pursuit of happiness, and view happiness for what it truly is – a feeling. And life is much too precious and short to focus on how we feel (or don’t want to feel) all the time, right?
Psychological flexibility is defined as “the ability to be fully present and open to our experiences so that we can take actions guided by our values” (Stoddard & Afar, 2014). In other words, it’s the ability to bend and adapt to life’s ups and downs while still taking action that is personally meaningful and important. Much like physical flexibility, psychological flexibility also takes patience and practice, and may not come very naturally at first.
A good example of psychological flexibility can be shown in the following quote:
“When I was in grad school, a friend asked me to give a guest lecture for her class. I was terrified of public speaking, but I wanted to be helpful, so I agreed. I figured it would be a good learning opportunity, so after the class I handed out feedback forms asking how I could improve. It was brutal. One student wrote that I was so nervous I was causing the class to physically shake in their seats. My authentic self was not a fan of public speaking. But I started volunteering to give more lectures, knowing it was the only way to get better. I wasn’t being true to myself, I was being true to the self I wanted to become.” – Professor Adam Grant (McKeever, 2020)
As you can see, Professor Grant didn’t wait until his fear of public speaking went away before deciding to help his friend; he felt the anxiety and nerves and committed to giving the lecture. This is the essence of psychological flexibility – being open to our experiences so that we can take action that is guided by our values.
Throughout this webzine series, Flexibility of the Mind, I will be introducing you to the six core concepts of psychological flexibility, and provide you with tools, ideas, and exercises to support you in your journey toward wellness.
In the meantime, please feel free to check out this link to get a closer look at psychological flexibility scores and learn more.
Bond, F.W., LLoyd, J. & Guenole, N. (2011). The work-related acceptance and action questionnaire (WAAQ): Initial psychometric findings and their implications for measuring psychological flexibility in specific contexts. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology: University of London. Retrieved from https://research.gold.ac.uk/id/eprint/7349/3/WAAQ_Bond_Lloyd_Guenole.pdf.
Harris, R. (2009). The happiness trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Hayes, S. My Flexibility Scores. Retrieved from https://stevenchayes.com/my-flexibility-scores/
Kato, T. (2016). Impact of psychological inflexibility on depressive symptoms and sleep difficulty in a japanese example. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4908084/.
McKeever, N. (2020). Psychological flexibility: the superpower of mental health and wellbeing. The Weekend University. Retrieved from https://theweekenduniversity.com/psychological-flexibility.
Stoddard, J.A. & Afari, N. (2014). The big book of act metaphors: A practitioner’s guide to experiential exercises and metaphors in acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Productions.
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