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Psychological Flexibility

Psychological Flexibility (PF) is a term I became aware of in my study of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Most write-ups you’ll see about this term are technical psychology articles and therapeutic studies, so in this post I want to keep it simple and layman-relatable.

Basically, this is my own interpretation of PF. For a more through scientific version, check out this article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5769281/ 

Psychological flexibility is the end result of applying 6 key principles of ACT, so rather than seeing PF as a thing on its own, see it more as the Captain Planet of different magical rings combining their powers.

Present Moment

Staying in the moment makes you far more adaptable, realistic, and accurate in both your perceptions and your decisions. This means dismissing thoughts about the past or future, or at least seeing them as merely present-moment thoughts rather than truths about another time period.

The simple practical trick to become present is to ground yourself through a behaviour or observation, like flicking yourself sharply on the ear or paying close attention to sights and sounds as they occur (i.e. mindfulness).

If it’s not happening now, it’s not happening!

Values

Core values are the principles that we align with as our authentic selves, i.e. the person we wish we could be all of the time if we weren’t insecure, afraid, pressured or confused.

Values are things like honesty, courage, responsibility, acceptance, curiosity, respect, compassion, humility, assertiveness, and so on.

If you can adapt to living by these values no matter the context, you’re flexible. Honesty might mean one thing on a date with your partner, and something else in a meeting with your boss. Courage might be bungy jumping one day, or confronting your father the next day.

Ask yourself, in any given situation, these two questions:

  1. a) What value does this situation most call for?
  2. b) How should I live by that value this time?

Acceptance

Acceptance is an alignment between what you expect or want and reality. It means not wishing for things that aren’t, or hoping for things that might not be. It means finding a way to be OK with what is currently happening, what is real, and what you can control.

Practically, this is difficult. We are constantly wishing and hoping and expecting without even realising it. But the more we tap into these desires, the more we can see they don’t align with what is real, and therefore set us up to be frustrated and disappointed.

The practical trick to acceptance is consciously choosing what is already happening. For example, I can be “stuck in traffic”, or I can use the traffic as a good opportunity to listen to a long podcast I haven’t had time for.

Make whatever is happening work for you, and you have acceptance.

Defusion

This is the ability to detach from thoughts and feelings and stop identifying as them. You can be the space where they happen rather than identifying as the thought or feeling. Defusing refers to the process of detachment as it occurs.

My favourite method is to notice I’m having a thought and realise that this thought has only existed briefly (even if I repeatedly have it). I can say the old Stoic phrase, “This, too, shall pass”, to remind myself that this thought is not permanent, and therefore not who I am.

I might be angry now, but I won’t be angry forever. I might feel like a loser now, but within an hour I’ll be thinking about what to eat for lunch and have completely forgotten I felt this way.

Notice that nothing is forever, and therefore nothing needs to be treated as true or permanent.

Ask yourself, “Is this true, or just a temporary state?”

Committed Action

Life will throw up obstacles. No plan survives getting punched in the face, as Mike Tyson puts it. But flexible people adapt to the upsets, setbacks, and unexpected barriers, and find a way to either stay on track or get back on track as soon as possible.

Rather than giving up when you get knocked down, expect to get knocked down, and react as if this is just a test of your character. Get back up and try again. And again. And again.

You might need to adjust your approach, change who you’re doing it with, or find another time and location. But make sure you never give up on actions you’ve committed to. And never start something you’re not committed to.

Treat every action goal as, “You’ll have to kill me to stop me”.

Self-as-context

Your identity is your prison. Saying to yourself, “I am This and I am That” only limits your options.

Understand that who “You” are right now is momentary. 

You might think of yourself as “An Accountant”, for example, but what happens when you’re playing with your kids? Are you still an accountant or are you now a father? What about when you’re on the toilet – who are you then?

Your “self” is a constantly changing thing, and therefore there’s no need for labels and attachment to an identity. You can be whatever is required for living by your values in this situation. You can become a flexible agency that acts according to principles but is never just one rigid thing.

For more on these concepts, get in touch dan@brojo.org with your questions, issues and stories.

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