Blog Short #76: “Psychological Flexibility” is good for your mental health.
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
Photo by andresr, Courtesy of iStock Photo
Imagine you’re playing tennis, and it’s your turn to receive. You’re standing front-court, have your knees slightly bent, and your feet shoulder-width apart. You’re tilted forward, your attention’s focused, and you’re prepared to move quickly in any direction to field the ball when it comes over the net.
Your success depends on three things:
- Your level of skill
- Ability to focus
- Capacity to be flexible in the moment
You need to be able to pivot in a second to handle what comes your way and then respond with deliberate intention and skill.
As anyone who plays sports knows, having this type of focused flexibility, which is psychological in nature, is as important as athletic skill.
This is also true of life.
Psychological flexibility allows you to field what comes your way with focus, emotional equilibrium, and presence.
Today I’m going to define psychological flexibility and give you a description of its main characteristics and benefits.
What is “psychological flexibility”?
Let’s start with a general definition:
Psychological flexibility (PF) is the ability to handle distress coming from thoughts, feelings, or situations by staying present in the moment and responding with actions that are in keeping with your values and long-term vision of your life.
In other words, you don’t suppress distressing emotions or resist them when they arise, but instead, acknowledge them while adapting to the situation at hand and behaving in a way that’s in keeping with your identity and values.
This will become a little clearer as we run through the four main features of PF.
4 Features of Psychological Flexibility
1) You can recognize and adapt to various situational demands.
Suppose there’s a change in plans, or an interruption to your routine, or an unexpected situation. In each case, you recognize that you need to pivot and adapt to the altered circumstances. You have to let go of your resistance to the new demands. There are three parts to this:
- Letting go of your “shoulds” – thoughts like “Things shouldn’t work this way,” or “I’m the only one who can do this right!” Instead, you can entertain different approaches and move away from a rigid point of view.
- Adjust your responses to the present situation and the demands in the moment. You can switch gears emotionally and mentally.
- Remain present while drawing on past experiences or lessons learned, and also keeping the future in mind so that your current actions align with your goals and values. For example, if you’re angry, you can get your head around it and channel it into a constructive response so it won’t come back to bite you later.
2) You can shift mindsets and choose the most effective behaviors.
Not only do you accept and adapt to the new situation, but you also have the presence of mind to choose the best behaviors to approach it. You’re able to:
- Focus your attention and direct your energy effectively, even if you’re stressed.
- Recognize that your approach to a situation or problem might need to change.
- Make use of feedback and perspectives from others.
- Understand that you need to try different strategies if you want different results.
- Shift perspectives.
Here’s an example:
You get in your car to go home from work, and it won’t start. You feel a mixture of anxiety and anger and begin venting to yourself about how things always happen at the worst time.
If you’re being psychologically flexible, you’ll be able to take a few deep breaths, recognize that your reaction is normal, and shift into a problem-solving mode. You’ll begin reviewing alternative steps to get your car repaired and get yourself home. You’ll choose the best route available and take action.
With a flexible approach, you solve your problem and feel good about your ability to channel your stress into handling the situation well. Best of all, your actions mirror how you see yourself. You get an added boost in self-confidence.
3) You maintain balance among important life domains.
You’re aware of balancing your different life domains – work, family, leisure, and relationships. PF allows you to do this well because you can keep in mind what’s most important to you while shifting and focusing your attention on different domains as needed. You field daily demands while protecting what’s near and dear to you.
Instead of seeing stressful situations in isolation and reacting to them negatively, you take them in stride. You see them as part of your personal development and journey toward your goals. They provide insights, learning opportunities, and experience. You can weather failures and view them as steps along your life trajectory.
4) You’re aware, open, and committed to behaviors that reflect your deeply held values.
This is a significant aspect of psychological flexibility. It’s a foundational part. As you field the various events, situations, and interactions with your environment, you’re true to your most importantly held meanings and values. You stay true to who you are and your behavior reflects that. You’re self-aware.
You’re also open to new and novel approaches to achieving your goals and life commitments. You’re curious and receptive to other possible routes to achieve what you want in life.
If you applied for a job but didn’t get it, you might see that as an opportunity to try something different – maybe an alternate job or start a business.
Not sure how flexible you are?
Ask yourself these questions:
- Are you adaptable in the face of stress or change?
- Can you switch gears and shift emotionally when a situation upsets your plans or is out of the ordinary?
- How long do you resist before working on a solution?
- Do you think outside the box to try a different approach when the usual one doesn’t work?
- Can you allow other people to do things differently than you do?
- Can you take in and consider feedback, advice, or additional information when given?
- Do you see current stressful situations as opportunities to learn, try something different, and help you toward your goals?
- Most importantly, do you allow yourself to feel negative emotions when they arise?
Answering these questions will give you a pretty good feel for how psychologically flexible you are. If you’re not sure, ask someone who knows you well.
Next week, we’ll talk about how to diffuse negative emotions.
That’s good for today. Have a great week!
All my best,
PS: Suggested reading: A Liberated Mind by Steven C. Hayes
Ciarrochi, J., Bilich, L., & Godsel, C. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a mechanism of change in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In Ruth Baer’s (Ed), Assessing Mindfulness and Acceptance: Illuminating the Processes of Change (pp. 51-76). New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Hayes, S. C. A (2019). A Liberated Mind. Avery.
Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Kashdan, T. B. (2010, November 1). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 865-878. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001