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 blog, I look at this most important of psychological abilities.

Four areas of flexibility

Human beings are a thinking, feeling, behaving and relating species. Therefore, psychological flexibility is the ability to change how we think, feel, behave, and relate (to ourselves and the outside world) in ways that help us 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. When we fall out of step with the world and ourselves, our mental health and well-being can suffer, and when this happens, the culprit is often psychological inflexibility.

Difficult emotions

Difficult or intense emotions 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. Whether we experience emotions such as anxiety, depression or anger, or their positive counterparts such as happiness, love or excitement, such emotions reduce our psychological flexibility.

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 those 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. The result? Psychological inflexibility.

Emotions as messages

One way to change difficult or 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? Well, emotions are a commentary on our lives and how well we are thriving and surviving. 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 our lives’ direction, 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 excellent, 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 Plan A despite its obsolescence? Psychological inflexibility is the answer. Remember the effect of intense emotions? Plan A’s are built on them because we have invested so much of ourselves in them. Plan As are emotionally seductive and come full of irresistible promises that our problems will disappear if they are given one more chance. Once seduced, we convince ourselves that the blood, sweat and tears of a new Plan B are 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 coaching or therapy is the need to hear from a professional the cold, hard truth 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 coach or therapist persuades where self-talk or an existing support network cannot.

An effective coach or therapist can show someone that acquiring a Plan B by being psychologically flexible is far easier than they imagined. All that is required is evidence that change is possible. Once this reality sinks in, it can be straightforward for someone to reintroduce flexible thinking, behaving, feeling and relating into their lives.

Getting support

If you have arrived at the conclusion that psychological flexibility has become an issue for you, my IMPACT Model and IMPACT Programmes might be just what you are looking for. To book an initial consultation, visit my Make a Booking page. You will have the opportunity to tell me about what you are going through and find out how I can support you. Even if you choose not to work with me, I promise your consultation will give you more ideas, knowledge and insight than you had before.

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.