BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 23, 2021
Psychological flexibility allows for smother adaptation to life complexity.
There is an inherent problem with rigid definitions, exact plans, and security enhancing rules—life does not follow along. We think we have it figured out and bam life hits us on our noggin, knocks us down and makes us cry. That's the problem with the wellness industry. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We may have a go-to response; but even go-to responses don't work equally well in every situation. We need flexibility.
In psychology, they refer to this as psychological flexibility. We achieve greater wellness when we can take the current situation, our momentary flashes of emotion, and conform our behavioral response to fit values and achieve long-term goals.
Psychological flexibility means mindfully engaging with present moment, realistically interpreting situations, and then changing or persisting in behaviors that honor personal values.
Interrupting Automatic Behaviors
Freedom is experienced when we intervene, replacing reactions with response. Rollo May wrote, "freedom is the capacity to pause in the face of stimuli from many directions at once and, in this pause, to throw one’s weight toward this response rather than that one" (2012, p. 54).
Evolution has compassionately introduced a buffer between the environment, inner urges and our responding behavior. Consciousness enables those who effectively call upon its power to disengage from blind driving forces and introduce a collection of helpful knowledge conveniently stored in memory to motivate better actions.
See Wise Decision for more on this topic
"Being psychologically flexible allows you to stay rooted in the present moment when difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations arise, and enables you to take a broader, more holistic view of the situation."
The Weekend University
Psychological Flexibility is an Expression of Freedom
Instead of behaviors flowing unimpeded from fluctuating emotions and chaotic thoughts, we can choose a response that supports deeply held values and moves us towards overarching visions we have of our life.
We should stop fighting the moment. We should stop rejecting instances of emotion. Both situations and feelings are part of living. The task is to harness experience and emotion to propel us towards the future we desire.
Professor Steven Hayes, the co-developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, defines psychological flexibility as the ability to "make contact with experience in the present moment fully and without defence" (2020).
Emotions are Functional
Emotions serve an evolutionary survival purpose. I'm not implying that just because we "feel" something, we have license to act on the impulse. Often behavioral responses to emotions are learned. The automatic behavioral response may be adaptive but not functional, meaning our response calms the emotion (at least temporarily), however, the response isn't functional, clashing with deeper life objectives.
We're brain washed. Our comfort-driven society rebels against perfectly natural emotions—just because they are not enjoyable. We are encouraged to excuse and bury anything other joyful happiness. This is a tragedy. We need the whole spectrum of emotion.
Todd B. Kashdan PhD in a Psychology Today article warns that "therapy trains people to engage in a never-ending internal battle with perfectly natural feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, embarrassment, boredom, and loneliness. Many of these thoughts and emotions, albeit painful, offer useful information about what is the most useful strategy to adopt in a given situation" (2020).
Functional in psychological flexibility refers to how well a response serves long-term intentions—our valued goals. Not all our responses are functional. Many behaviors are adaptive but not functional. A great example is avoidance. We soothe anxiety by avoiding demanding and difficult challenges. Our avoidance is an adaptive response but impedes goal attainment, so it is not functional.
Dysfunctional adaptations often invite consequences that disrupt and invade our lives, creating more anxiety in the future than relief they provide in the present.
Drug use is an extreme example of a dysfunctional adaptation. The intoxication calms nerves, drowns out sorrows, and destroys our lives.
Acceptance and commitment therapy's adoption of functional responses is a notable addition to and departure from positive psychology's focus on "positive" emotions and experiences (Bergman & Keital, 2020).
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is designed to encourage clients to mindfully accept life difficulties. Through acceptance clients improve their feeling experience while aligning behaviors with deeper life values. ACT is a psychotherapy similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy, helping people focus on the present to artfully and constructively move through overwhelming and difficult emotions.
A major component or tool of ACT is psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the necessary skill taught in ACT to achieve these emotional regulation goals.
Marie Miguel explains that the goal of ACT "is to diffuse negative thinking and unnecessary emotional dwelling" (2021). ACT achieves this goal through "a variety of approaches drawn from the behavioral analysis, mindfulness, cognitive diffusion, acceptance, and commitment methods" (2021).
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness based cognitive therapy designed to help people respond functionally to difficult emotions and constructively achieve life goals that honor their values.
Three Pillars of Psychological Flexibility
The three pillars that create psychological flexibility are: (1) opening up with acceptance and diffusion, (2) be present with contact to the present and self-as-context, and (3) do what matters through value clarity and committed action.
The Three pillars of being open, being present, and doing what matters are based on the following six core processes:
Acceptance is an action not passive tolerance or resignation. Acceptance is acting on what is given. Acceptance refrains from kicking and screaming as a victim. Acceptance is an intelligent response to circumstances, as they exist in reality. Acceptance is freedom. We exert our self by accepting reality and acting on it as opposed to passively blaming the world for disappointments and failures.
Diffusion is the opposite of fusion. Fusion is a failure of differentiation between experience and an autonomous being. Complex and varied stimuli collide with our sense of self. We constantly collide with external and internal elements, interfering with an innate sense of self.
Failure to differentiate between stimuli and self is common. We often live in automatic mode. Stimulus leads to action without any thought. Diffusion is a mindful separation, identifying the content of inner experiences and outer stimuli as separate from the self.
We can assist diffusion with our words. Instead of "that makes me mad," we may say, "I notice that I have a feeling of anger when I hear that." Our words help establish autonomy of being, separated from the feeling.
The intent of diffusion from emotions and thoughts is to re-establish a sense of control over reactions. We are not helpless beings being acted upon; but autonomous beings experiencing and thinking with the agency to choose.
Contact with the Present Moment:
Contact with the present moment is a nonjudgmental awareness of inner and outer experiences. This is a mindful interaction with life. The present moment often discomforts; plans fail, expectations disappoint, and futures frighten. The present moment may be unpleasant. Contact with the present moment means we don't resist or deny the present but nurture an accepting attitude toward the present that calmly expresses, “this is what life is.”
Self as Context
Self-as-context is opposite to self-as-content. Experiencing the world as an autonomous being is essential for diffusion. Instead of identifying ourselves with the dynamic and changing content of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, self-as-context is the experience of separation.
We are not the content of our thoughts and feelings but a person experiencing them. Our separation, experiencing thoughts and feelings in the context of an autonomous being, creates a wider foundation for balancing the flux of thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Do What Matters
Values clarify what is individually important, giving life direction. Values guide and motivate actions. Values are the underlying structure, giving life to behavioral goals.
Values cannot be reached like a goal. A value acts like a compass providing directional guidance, not a roadmap to distinct destinations. Lacking clarity of one's values often leads to a strict rule-governed life or chaotic wandering.
We may value health and therefore eat healthy. Lacking contact with our underlying value doesn't necessarily imply unhealthy eating. We may follow strict rules such as a vegetarian diet, not allowing for simple variations.
Understanding our underlying value of health allows flexibility to explore outside the strict rules, knowing occasional deviations don't necessarily conflict with the underlying value.
Committed action is taking action toward a goals that honor underlying values. Committed action continues forward despite contact with unpleasant experiences. Behavioral action is the crowning expression, moving our life in step with values. Our flexible responses to life surprises strengthen our values and advance our purpose.
Putting All the Elements Together
Rules have purpose. They create security and direct action. However, we often fuse with the rules and lose the psychological flexibility to interact with life. When protecting the rule becomes of greater purpose than upholding the value, we lose. Variations and complexity unduly disrupt emotions, spike anxiety, and create confusion.
Imagine a highway with two lanes going each direction. The posted speed limit is 55 mph. Without flexibility, we would move to the inside lane, set our speed to 55 mph, and not adjust speed or lane of travel until we reached our destination.
However, our inflexible style creates a few hazards. Occasionally, a car travelling at a faster speed must maneuver around our slow moving car. On other occasions a slower moving car may impede our travel and we must brake or change lanes, violating our goal of staying in a single lane at a specified speed. These unpredictable changes create anxiety to the inflexible rule follower.
A flexible driver understands the wisdom of the 55 mph speed limit and behaves with respect to the speed limit. However, they are aware of changing conditions that require adjustments. They choose a lane that doesn't impede others nor overly slows their driving speed. This requires occasional lane changes, braking and accelerating. A mindful flexible driver also considers wider conditions such as fog and rain, heavy traffic, or other hazardous conditions. The conditions determine their speed and lane of travel.
Psychological flexibility is much the same. As we travel the highway of life, a flexible approach soothes emotional reactions. Experience is complex, often impeding our travel speed and lane of travel. Flexibility happily makes adjustments, adapting to the givens of the present without forsaking underlying values.
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Begman, M., Keital, M.A. (2020) Navigating Life Transitions for Meaning. Academic Press; 1st edition
Kashdan, T. B. (2020). Psychological Flexibility: We Know Less Than We Think. Psychology Today. Published 7-6-2020. Accessed 6-21-2021.
Miguel, M. (2021) What Is Acceptance And Commitment Therapy? Betterhelp.com. Published 2-9-2021. Accessed 6-21-2021.
(2020). Psychological Flexibility: The Superpower of Mental Health and Wellbeing. The Weekend University. Published 6-27-2020. Accessed 6-21-2021.