Psychological flexibility and how to get it

“I remember seeing an elaborate and complicated automatic washing machine for automobiles that did a beautiful job of washing them. But it could do only that, and everything else that got into its clutches was treated as if it were an automobile to be washed. I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” Abraham Maslow

Psychological flexibility lies at the heart of positive mental health and well-being. With it, we can adapt to the competing demands of our personal and professional lives. Without it, those demands can get on top of us. In this post, we look at this most important of psychological abilities.

The four areas of flexibility

Human beings are a thinking, feeling, behaving and relating species. Psychological flexibility therefore is an ability to change how we think, feel, behave and relate (to ourselves and the outside world) in ways that help us to thrive and survive. It is an ability that keeps us in-step with the world as it changes around us, and it is an ability that keeps us in-step with ourselves as we grow and develop. It is when we fall out of step with the world and ourselves that our mental health and well-being can suffer. When this happens, the culprit is often psychological inflexibility.

Intense emotions

Intense emotions such as anxiety and depression, anger and stress go hand in hand with psychological inflexibility. The more intense the emotion, the less open we are to alternative ways of thinking, feeling, behaving and relating. Even ‘positive’ emotional states such as happiness, love or excitement can reduce our psychological flexibility because they can be no less intense.

What is going on? It appears that our internal (thoughts, memories) and external (behaviours, relationships) experiences are processed through the emotional state we are in and shaped accordingly. Experiences in harmony with an intense emotional state are accepted, whereas experiences in conflict with it are either rejected or distorted to ensure ‘compliance’. Rejection and distortion are like two bouncers outside a nightclub. They only let in those they like the look of.

Emotions as messages

One way to change intense emotional states for the better and restore psychological flexibility is to think of emotions as messages. In other words, to see emotions as a form of communication trying to get an important message through. What might that message be? Emotions are a commentary on our lives. If we like who we are and how our lives are progressing, the message is: more of the same, please. If we are unhappy with ourselves and the direction our lives are taking, the message is: change.

Acknowledging and responding constructively to our emotional messages is vital. Doing so maintains emotional states that support psychological flexibility and transforms ones that don’t into ones that do. It is when we don’t respond constructively to our emotions that psychological inflexibility sets in.

Plan A isn’t working

Psychological flexibility allows us to keep an eye on how we are currently running and organising our lives – otherwise known as Plan A. Plan A’s are great, but they come with an Achilles Heel: they are often the result of a lot of blood, sweat and tears. When the world changes around us necessitating a Plan B, the sheer enormity of the effort required to develop it can often prove too much. Defeated, we fall back into the warm embrace of Plan A, which takes no effort at all.

Why do so many of us accept the warm embrace of a Plan A despite its obsolescence? Psychological inflexibility is the answer. Remember the effect of intense emotions? Plan A’s are built on them. They are emotionally seductive and come with the irresistible promise that our problems will disappear if they are given one more chance. We convince ourselves that the blood, sweat and tears of a new Plan B is unnecessary. Why go to such effort when Plan A, given a tweak or two, is ready and waiting?

Getting a Plan B

What often brings people into therapy or coaching is the need to hear from a professional that Plan A is now part of the problem. Somehow hearing Einstein’s famous definition of insanity – ‘Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome – from a therapist or coach persuades where self-talk cannot.

An effective therapist or coach can show someone that acquiring a Plan B by being psychologically flexible is far easier than previously imagined. Once this reality sinks in, it can be relatively easy for someone to reintroduce flexibility back into their lives. And all that is required to replace the intense emotions of Plan A with ones that are more supportive, is evidence that change is possible.

Getting support

If you have arrived at the conclusion that psychological flexibility has become an issue for you, then please get in touch. We’ve supported many people in both therapy and coaching to rediscover this important psychological ability, and helped them to get their lives back on track.