Building Psychological Flexibility

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

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Have you ever found yourself in a challenging situation where you just couldn’t stop until you achieved your goal?

Think about it for a second, maybe it was that moment when you worked up the courage to speak to a person you were attracted to, even though you were terrified, and doing so put you outside of your comfort zone. Maybe it was when you landed your first job and even though it wasn’t what you expected, you persisted in doing the best you could until you were eventually promoted or found the job you love.

If this resonated with you or you have a similar story in your head, chances are you have experienced some degree of psychological flexibility. With this article, I hope to help you gain awareness of those moments by sharing my knowledge on what this trait is, why developing this skill is important and most importantly how to build it.

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.

He argues that “psychological flexibility is a person’s capacity to contact the present moment while being aware of thoughts and emotions, without trying to change or be controlled by them and that depending upon the situation, one persists or changes his or her behaviours in the pursuit of values and goals.”

This definition may seem daunting so to put it in simple words, it is our ability of being self aware while we adapt our behaviours to achieve goals depending on our situational context. This means that one must have emotional intelligence to recognise and accept what bothers us in order to pursue our objectives and motivations. In doing so we can respond effectively to the situational demands of the here and now.

The examples I shared in the introduction were meant to bring awareness about how people experience challenging situations and how we might persist or change our behaviour depending on our end goals. However, when we face adversity we can easily fall into our primitive fight or flight mechanisms of survival, which is contrary to psychological flexibility.

Imagine your boss or a colleague disagrees with you by bringing to light something that went wrong in the last project and they think it’s your fault. This situation will naturally make you feel angry, sad or frustrated. If you decide to fight in that moment you will probably let your emotions guide your response and the outcome will likely be negative. On the other hand, fleeing would probably be seen as a lack of control or competence.

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.

Continue reading below to find out more about why this skill is worth developing and to get a step by step process that helps build the habit of responding with a flexible mindset.

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.

“Psychological flexibility is one of the single greatest things we can do for our mental health, success, and fulfillment.” — Connor Beaton, NY based coach, teacher, speaker.

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. Defuse the situation
    Break down the facts by taking into account others’ realities to be able to see our thoughts with enough distance that we can choose what to do next, regardless of mental chatter. This is where you seek to understand and then to be understood.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

There are multiple tactics you can practice on a daily basis like mindfulness, which is a state of active and open attention to the present. This will help you with the first three phases mentioned above about acceptance.

Another interesting form of gaining cognitive flexibility lies in Otto Scharmer’s Theory U model, a framework that helps people and organisations take a leap from their current selves to their emerging future selves. This is no different from what you’ve been reading here, being able to navigate discomfort by opening your mind, heart and having the willpower to commit your actions towards achieving your goals.

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.

We humans are explorers of sense making so depending on your learning preferences (visual, auditive, experiential) find people that you think are psychologically flexible to learn from them, read more books and articles, listen to podcasts or binge videos on Youtube or Khan Academy to keep your minds healthy.

I sincerely hope that this article has helped you gain awareness of the moments when you tend to experience cognitive flexibility, or better yet recognise the moments when rigidity takes over so you can do something about it.

Thank you for reading, if you enjoyed the article give it some claps and if you loved it share it with your network.

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

Chris R. Becker (2020) Designers: stay psychologically flexible. https://uxdesign.cc/designers-stay-psychologically-flexible-3087d14c9332

Kalina Tyrkiel (2019) 7 Psychological Principles for better UX. https://livesession.io/blog/7-psychological-principles-for-better-ux/

Mulder, P. (2012). Theory U by Otto Scharmer. Retrieved [insert date] from toolshero:
https://www.toolshero.com/leadership/theory-u-scharmer/

Neel Burton (2012) Our Hierarchy of Needs.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201205/our-hierarchy-needs

Noam Shpancer (2019) Psychological Flexibility: A Core Mental Health Asset.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-therapy/201909/psychological-flexibility-core-mental-health-asset

Shahram Heshmat (2019) The 10 Most Common Sources of Motivations.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201904/the-10-most-common-sources-motivations

Steve Rose (2020) How to Improve Psychological Flexibility. https://steverosephd.com/how-to-improve-psychological-flexibility/

Todd B. Kashdan, Jonathan Rottenberg (2010) Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735810000413