Psychological flexibility is important to me, my clients and my students – or at least, I do my best to help them make it important to them.
“Develop flexibility and you will be firm, cultivate yielding and you will be strong” – Liezi, The Book of Master Lie.
A great deal of our suffering can be caused by rumination (read this article to get more focused on that topic by the way: How To Stop Rumination and Overthinking Being Your Downfall) and the fact that when we are often unable to un-tangle ourselves from our thoughts, we can also become enslaved and/or led by them. We get set in patterns of thinking and do not like to step out of those patterns. Sometimes those patterns of thinking are simply biases or heuristics that we are not even aware of, that forge and run our reality. From a contextual behavioural science perspective, this is called psychological rigidity and the opposite is psychological flexibility. The principle of psychological flexibility is attracting a lot more interest, particularly in the contemporary landscape of high ambiguity, life uncertainty and tumultuous world events and the political climate etc.
Psychological flexibility is at the heart (and in the head) of good mental health and resilience for all of us. In terms of required leadership skills, it is apparently one of the top three skills most needed in effective leadership. A study by Bond and Bunce (2003) showed that employees with higher levels of psychological flexibility gain the most benefits from having higher control over their work. The question is, what does it mean to be psychologically flexible? Additionally, what benefits are attached? Finally and most importantly, how can we increase our ability in this area?
What is psychological flexibility?
Kashdan & Rotterburg (2010) define psychological flexibility as the measure of how (1) a person adapts to situational demands (2) re-configures mental resources (3) shifts perspective and (4) balances competing desires, needs and life domains.
Essentially, a person can be said to be psychologically flexible if they are able to be consciously and truly connected to the present moment, and are able to respond to, and make decisions based on deeply held values, regardless of difficult thoughts and conflicting emotions which present themselves. It means that pursuing longer term visions and goals based on clearly held personal values is more important to the individual than any short term immediate difficulty and challenge; they are able to remain focused on the former and recognise and fully accept the immediate difficulty or initial setbacks. They are also able to listen and reflect meaningfully, on other views and perspectives and recognise when their approach, view or behaviour needs to be modified, and effect whatever is required without any great difficulty. They are also able to shift perspective and focus between the “here and now “to the future, effectively and fluidly.
Much of this relates to the skill of critical thinking, which you can read about in more detail here:
Critical Thinking: Its Importance and Ways to Improve It.
Increasing Psychological Flexibility:
To be effective in the modern world, as individuals or as part of a team, as an employee, leader or self-employed entrepreneur, we need to have Psychological Flexibility and Mental Toughness. I’ve written about mental toughness before here: Goal-Focused Ways To Increase Mental Toughness so I wanted to really have a say on psychological flexibility today. Performance of psychological flexibility will take many different forms including – effective communication, clarity of decision making, creative problem solving, managing challenges and managing emotions.
However there are many ways in which psychological flexibility can be increased. Here are just a few of them which tend to centre around a theme of mindful awareness of emotions thoughts and feelings:
1. Developing our levels of awareness into noticing our emotions thoughts and feelings, especially when they are difficult and challenging to us, is perhaps the most important thing of all to do. A lot of people focus on trying to suppress or avoid difficult emotions, thoughts and feeling. This is a maladaptive approach and ultimately intensifies levels of distress. Emotions will usually find some way of being expressed. Labelling or naming them can be helpful for some people (as is promoted in the field of CBT and within books such as Feeling Good by David Burns whereby types of thinking errors are identified and listed). This enables people become more aware of and attuned to ones which crop up frequently for them, which can help in some part to defuse, refute and ideally restructure them.
I give a better detailed account of a simple way to do this, in this article: Enjoying the Simple Stuff and Why A x B = C
2. We can learn to “befriend” our emotions, even those we do not like and see and accept them for what they are. In my therapy rooms and within my classrooms, I teach clients and students how to dissociate from thoughts and feelings and become a passive observer of them in ways often seen in ‘the observing self’ or the field of ACT. This approach gives us choices then to recognise when we need to just accept the emotion we are experiencing, and not have a “knee-jerk” response to them. We can develop a wider perspective, reminding ourselves of what is truly important to us, and what we are aiming to achieve.
3. Developing a mindfulness or any form of reflective practice, can be helpful with training ourselves to be more comfortable and accepting of difficult and muddy emotions and thoughts.
4. Getting back in touch with our core values is always a useful activity. Our core values act as our internal compass; like a magnet, we are drawn to behaving in ways, and taking decisions which are aligned with them. Re-visiting these, and unearthing what is really important to us, what they mean and the benefits we gain from them gives us clarity about the way forward and our appropriate response, especially in times of high challenge and ambiguity. A significant number of my coaching clients keep their core values printed out in some visual presentation form, within easy view and reach, as a helpful reminder. Myself, I have them on a list in my Evernote app and refer to them daily as a set of guiding principles to adhere to and conduct myself by.
There are many other approaches to develop higher levels of psychological flexibility, it’s also important to reflect on your current levels of psychological flexibility. Here are some initial questions for further self-inquiry and reflection.
5. How do you currently respond to difficult thoughts, feeling and emotions? How fixed or flexible are your habitual responses? Be really honest and candid with yourself or work with someone else to ensure you derive the most benefit from this line of enquiry.
6. How often do you “react” in a knee jerk fashion to difficult or challenging situations in your life? List some key scenarios and situations from your recent life to explore and examine what you did and how you did, reflect honestly and objectively.
7. What situations trigger a fixed, reactive or unhelpful response? Inquire into what lies underneath these behaviours. What might another approach look like, which still enables you to pursue your longer term vision and goals, but which gives you some helpful options in responding more helpfully?
8. How well do you respond to any fluctuating demands in your life generally, whilst retaining a good overall level of resilience and well-being?
Improving Psychological Flexibility can assist with each of these factors. In particular by:
• Helping you to concentrate on the task for longer periods of time and develop your attentional control.
• Increasing the salience of tasks by linking them explicitly to goals, behaviours and values, thereby increasing motivation.
• Helping you to recognise when to persist and when to change behaviour, rather than being trapped into ineffective patterns of behaviour.
• Helping you manage your thoughts and emotions more effectively.
Psychological Flexibility enables us to focus and engage fully in what we are doing rather than getting pushed around by our thoughts and feelings and commit to doing what works more often. Mental Toughness determines how we respond to challenge, stress and pressure irrespective of our circumstances.
If you’d like to learn more or if you think this is something you need some help with, then visit these pages: