Building Psychological Flexibility

A guide on how to develop a trait that enables a healthy work life balance.

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What is Psychological Flexibility?

The concept of psychological flexibility has a long history in mental health but has gained popularity in recent years thanks to the contemporary Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach developed by the American psychologist Steven Hayes.

Practicing psychological flexibility would mean that you are able to process the information you receive, recognise the emotions you feel, step back or above the situation, and remember why you are there or what motivates you to be there in order to develop a response that takes all of this into account.

How would your colleague or boss react if you display such a response? It would likely lead to a constructive conversation where all stakeholders’ needs are heard to come up with proposals that fix whatever the problem was. If this is not the case, you might want to consider the possibility of working somewhere else.

Why should you develop this valuable skill?

There is no mystery, over the years researchers have gathered empirical evidence suggesting that psychological flexibility is strongly correlated with more quality of life and less possibility of developing a psychopathology.

Developing and practicing this skill will help you overcome difficult situations and improve your personal and professional relationships. Furthermore, it will also enable you to broaden your perspectives about life, the things that matter to you and be more open to new experiences.

This particular skill set is especially important at your workplace. As mentioned above, when you face challenging situations at work, adopting a flexible mindset can improve not only your performance but more importantly, your general well being and your sense of fulfillment.

The 6 stages of psychological flexibility

To learn how to apply this knowledge in your everyday life it is important to get a grasp of how this habit is formed. Next time you face a challenging or uncomfortable situation do the following:

  1. Bring awareness of self to the present moment
    Think about the present moment you are experiencing and notice how the challenging situation makes you feel. Bring awareness to the sensations your body has, the thoughts that go through your mind, the context and your surrounding. I know this sounds a bit metaphysical but bear with me, a few deep breaths will help you get through this stage.
  2. Accept what is happening
    After three deep breaths.
    Face the challenging situation head on, allow yourself to feel even when it might be painful or place you in a position of vulnerability. This is a powerful resource as it has the capacity to demonstrate emotional intelligence. Being able to accept that the story we have constructed about ourselves is in some way distorted from reality can be challenging but very rewarding as it is where we can learn the most valuable insights to improve our reactions.
  3. Observe yourself and the situation from a broader perspective
    Now that you have gone through the acceptance phase it’s time to develop an adequate response to the situation. Take a step back or take a stance of a mere observer to look at the here and now from a more ample perspective. This will allow you to direct your attention in a more intentional way, rather than by habit or through the lenses of your cognitive biases.
  4. Confirm your goals and values
    People tend to act according to what motivates them. According to Maslow’s theory of human motivation our behaviour is strongly influenced by fulfilling a hierarchy of needs. We must learn to recognise what drives us, be it a desire for personal development, the need to gain self esteem or a sense of financial liberty. Take a moment to think about your motivations in life and choose the qualities of being and doing that you want to evolve toward.
  5. Take action
    Step by step we have finally arrived at the place where we must create habits that support all previous choices. Take the learnings you possess about yourself and your situational context to commit your actions towards achieving the things you believe in.

A few tips and tricks

I have some good news for you, psychological flexibility is a trait that you can and should develop. As with any skill you want to improve, you will require practice and patience. Look at every challenging situation as an opportunity to flex your mind, remember that your brain is also a muscle, so work on maintaining it fit and healthy.

Final words

If this is a topic you would like to learn more about, I strongly encourage you to take a look at some of the references I have listed throughout this article (and below). If you’d like, you can also send me a line to discuss the topic more thoroughly.

References

Chin, F., Hayes, S.C. (2013) Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Contextual Behavioral Science. The Science of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3635495/pdf/nihms386792.pdf

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