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Developing psychological flexibility

March 16, 2022 - 14 min read

A man learning to sit with his emotions

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What is psychological flexibility?

Why is psychological flexibility important?

How is psychological flexibility measured?

How to develop psychological flexibility

We constantly face situations and moments that challenge us and leave a mix of often unwelcome feelings. We like to think that we can force them out either with logic or sheer willpower.

That is where psychological flexibility comes in. When we leverage this mindset, we can see problems for what they are and make more intentional decisions. 

This holistic view lets us navigate difficult situations with more clarity and purpose and has shown to improve our quality of life (Eilenberg, Hoffmann, Jensen, & Frostholm, 2017; Forman et al., 2012; Hayes, Luoma, Bond, Masuda, & Lillis, 2006; Wicksell, Olsson, & Hayes, 2011).

This guide will explore the role of psychological flexibility and ways to develop it for yourself.

What is psychological flexibility?

Psychological flexibility involves:

  • Remaining in the present moment
  • Staying open to experiencing whatever thoughts and feelings show up (good or bad)
  • Taking action in service of our values

Psychological flexibility is a core concept of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), developed by Steven C. Hayes.

According to Hayes' website, ACT is "a popular evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based methods." It teaches individuals strategies to stay present and conscious, choosing to respond in ways that align with their values and goals.

Psychological flexibility supports emotion regulation and gives people a way to take more conscious actions.

When a person is psychologically flexible, they will make decisions based on their values and long-standing beliefs rather than the immediate short-term emotions they're experiencing. 

Characteristics associated with psychological flexibility include:

In contrast, we can define psychological inflexibility by the actions taken in response to a psychological response, regardless of how they align with a person's values.

A psychologically inflexible individual may experience the following:

  • relying on "avoidance coping"
  • overwhelming anxiety or worry
  • lacking vision for the future
  • inability to recognize patterns in their behavior

Why is psychological flexibility important?

Developing this skill is more crucial than ever in times of change and challenge. Research shows that psychological flexibility can help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, and other mental health problems (Masuda et al., 2011). Additionally, studies have shown that psychological flexibility can build resilience and help individuals manage chronic pain.

If something is externally troubling, threatening, or terrifying, there are often ways to get rid of it. We can remove it or avoid it in the future.

Trying to push away our internal experiences, however, is like trying to move a 2,000 lb boulder. The harder you try, the more exhausted you become.

That means that, if we're feeling a lack of confidence at work, afraid to fail, overwhelmed, anxious, or angry, we identify the feeling as the problem. We believe we need to get rid of it before enjoying our lives. 

But spending time trying to push away these thought boulders doesn't leave much energy for work, family, or anything else that's important to you in your life. 

However, when we are more psychologically flexible, we can assess the situation rather than the emotion. We can make choices that we feel more secure in since they align with our values.

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What the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about psychological flexibility

The pandemic challenged human beings in ways that most could not have predicted. It took a toll on mental and psychological health in massive proportions.

From isolation and quarantining to keeping up with ever-changing guidelines – many people found themselves coping with stress like never before. The number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression rose from one in 10 to about four in 10 over the course of the pandemic.

According to a study in the U.K., "psychological flexibility was significantly and positively associated with greater well-being, and inversely related to anxiety, depression, and COVID-19-related distress."

How is psychological flexibility measured?

There are a handful of ways to measure psychological flexibility. One common option is The Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (AAQ), developed by Hayes and his colleagues.

This straightforward questionnaire asks seven questions, rating their behavior on a seven-point scale. To get your results, add up all seven scores for a total score.

A higher total score correlates to less psychological flexibility. But this short questionnaire is meant to be repeated over time. And your results are only intended to be compared to one another as you grow and not to another individual's score.

This way, you can track your changes over time as they relate to one another, rather than how they relate to a population or demographic.

Psychological flexibility and experiential avoidance

The scientific term for avoiding your feelings and difficult thoughts is experiential avoidance. There's a great deal of research that suggests that experiential avoidance is associated with poorer work performance and life satisfaction, as well as a host of mental health concerns like anxiety and depression. 

Based on how our minds work, these thoughts, feelings, and self-evaluations are more representative of where you've been than where you are. It's like we're always using an operating system to understand our reality. But that operating system is outdated and skewing our understanding of the here and now. 

The solution is not to get rid of these thoughts but to develop a different kind of relationship with them. 

Thoughts are just thoughts, and feelings are feelings. They're not the truth about you and your life. It's even possible to welcome and make room for them, like an unexpected guest that's here to stay for a while.

Spending your time trying to get rid of this guest or focusing on how upset you are that they are there won't get them to leave — but it will shape your experience. What if you could focus on what's most important to you instead? 

The goal here is to develop psychological flexibility. This is, of course, much easier said than done. But, it's possible to develop the skills that help us get better at pursuing what matters to us.


How to develop psychological flexibility

Self-awareness is at the heart of developing psychological flexibility. Half of the battle is understanding current habits. Once you become aware of how you respond to various stimuli, you can start to change your behavior. 

The Psychological Flexibility Model

According to the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, there are six core processes to developing psychological flexibility. They are presented in a hexagonal diagnostic tool called a hexaflex:

  1. Present moment
  2. Acceptance
  3. Values
  4. Cognitive diffusion
  5. Self-as-Context
  6. Committed action

To see real behavior change, try to tackle each step and progress through them all. 

Present moment: Live in the "now"

Notice when you struggle with thoughts and feelings that are not serving you well. Instead of unconsciously getting wrapped up in a battle to get rid of or avoid these thoughts and feelings, see if you can take a few minutes to stop the cycle. Can you take a moment to identify the thoughts and feelings? 

Acceptance: Embracing your thoughts

There's a common desire to eliminate the parts of ourselves or difficult thoughts that we do not like. But suppressing these aspects takes a lot of effort and can damage our psychological well-being.

Working to hide these less desirable traits or thoughts can be counter-productive to behavior change. The ACT model suggests embracing these thoughts or feelings and using that saved energy to control your behavior rather than your thoughts.

Values: Staying true to yourself

Your values may not be apparent right away. If they aren't, try taking the time to define what is important to you long-term.

Be aware that values are different from goals. So while a goal might be to run a marathon, prioritizing your health is a value. Avoiding work over the weekends could be a long-term goal, while time with your family is a value.

Clarifying and staying true to these values will help you stay true to yourself. Which, in turn, correlates to a more fulfilling life.


Cognitive defusion: Separate yourself from your thoughts

Language is a powerful tool, and the language we use to label ourselves and our feelings correlates to how we view ourselves.

Ask yourself how you interpret your thoughts and feelings. "Am I troubled by the actual thought or feeling, or the meaning (or interpretation) I am making of that thought or feeling?" It's pretty incredible how fast we can move from having a painful thought, like, "I really messed up this assignment" to "I'm a failure" to then panicking that it means our career is over and we will be out on the street. 

Cognitive defusion is the practice of separating the negative language or labels we habitually use to interpret our feelings. By being more aware of the language and changing it, individuals can create space between their thoughts or feelings and their immediate reactions.

Self-as-context: Practice mindful reframing

Often the most complex aspect of the ACT model, self-as-context relates to mindfulness. It is the ability to separate yourself and who you are from where you've been and the judgments you may place on yourself.

While your past does contribute to your personality, there is more to each individual than their experiences.

This is particularly notable when individuals label themselves as "a failure" or "idiotic" based on past experiences. When considering the self as context, an individual notices that they're hosting the thought that they are "a failure," for example, but that it is not rooted in any truth outside of their own thoughts.

Try reframing the thought as a thought and nothing more. It's not the absolute truth about you and your situation. We have so many different and conflicting thoughts and feelings in a day, an hour, even a moment. Try treating thoughts and feelings like passing weather systems instead of reflections of ourselves.

This separation creates distance between negative thoughts and fluctuating emotions. An individual can then take a step back and assess the situation from a more neutral position.

Committed action: Take action that correlates to your values

Committed action is an action you take that reflects and supports your values.

When faced with a decision, ask yourself: "What can I do to align my actions with what's most important to me? What can I do right now to honor that instead of reacting to the thought or feeling?"

In these small moments, where you can make space to choose how you want to respond, you'll find the freedom and power to live your best life, even during difficult circumstances.    

Developing these skills doesn't mean that we won't feel pain. Emotional discomfort is a part of the human experience — and that's okay! It does mean that we won't have the added suffering of struggling against our experiences. 

Start living in alignment with your values

Freeing yourself from the influence negative thoughts have on you doesn't guarantee you'll be able to realize all your goals in life. However, being more in control of your response and living in alignment with your values puts us in a much better place to give it our best shot.

If you're struggling to build self-awareness or manage your negative thoughts, BetterUp can help. Reach out to see where we can support you in becoming more psychologically flexible and living more intentionally overall.

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Published March 16, 2022

Marissa Berman, Psy.D.

Marissa Berman is a licensed psychologist, executive coach and organization development consultant. She has spent the past 20 years researching and applying best practices to boost mental health, wellbeing and performance for individuals, teams and organizations. She has an MA and PsyD in clinical psychology (University of Denver), and has completed a postdoctoral residency in counseling & sport psychology (UC Davis), and a postdoctoral fellowship in organization development psychology and consulting (VHA National Center for Organization Development). She is also a former US Ski Team member and national champion in the sport of inverted aerials.

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