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Psychological Flexibility: When East and West Converge

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When we think of being flexible, we might immediately imagine a practitioner of yoga executing a difficult pose or a young gymnast curling backward on a balance beam. But what does it mean to be psychologically flexible? The term psychological flexibility has been used by social scientists quite often over the past 10 to 15 years.

What Is Psychological Flexibility?

Having psychological flexibility means having access to the feelings and thoughts contained in each and every moment. Through nonjudgmental awareness, an individual can more easily see and understand his or her own true core values. This recognition and understanding can then lead to letting go of needless defences and allow for the alteration of any behaviors that are not in alignment with core values. Conversely, the individual may choose to persist in the actions and behaviors that do reflect core values.

Becoming More Psychologically Flexible

In an attempt to clarify what is meant by psychological flexibility and its impact on overall health, Todd B. Kashdan and Jonathan Rottenberg examined the research and papers of numerous social scientists whose work focused on this topic. In their paper, Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health (2010), they describe some of the benefits of having psychological flexibility as being able to:

  • adapt easily in situations with demands that change and fluctuate
  • access information gleaned from past experience and adapt this knowledge for use in new and challenging situations
  • shift how a situation is perceived; change a perspective
  • deal with competing and sometimes conflicting desires and needs
  • identify and practice the repeated actions that bring rich meaning into daily living

It is possible to learn the skills that will lead to becoming more psychologically flexible. Therapists and lifestyle coaches regularly include strategies in their workshops and private sessions aimed at helping people attain psychological flexibility.

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East Meets West

Meditation practitioners will notice the many similarities between the practice of mindfulness in everyday life and the areas being explored by today’s social scientists. Some of the strategies employed by therapists and lifestyle coaches in the area of psychological flexibility also mirror traditional teachings that come from the east, such as the Buddhist teachings based on mindfulness:

  • to have nonjudgmental awareness about an emotional state
  • to maintain an openness that is nonresistant
  • to be mindful at the same time as being resilient and vulnerable

The Middle Path in the Buddhist tradition embraces all things as they are, with no judgment. Nonjudgment and the practice of mindfulness in daily living go hand-in-hand. This practice leads to a stress-free state of no-striving that creates an opening for transcendent consciousness and, thus, enlightenment.

Forward 2,000 years later and researchers are describing self-acceptance as being central to psychological flexibility. They suggest that through nonjudgmental noticing of feelings and thoughts, both positive and negative, an individual can come to realize what his or her most valued core beliefs actually are. The person can then choose strategies and make choices that will help him or her live in accordance with these beliefs. If negative thoughts or feelings arise and the path of nonresistance is followed, these thoughts and feelings can be viewed from a nonjudgmental stance. When this happens, a space instantly opens up where learning and growth can happen.

What’s to Be Gained?

Psychological flexibility does not mean changing thoughts. It means simply noticing thoughts and, through the process of noticing, gaining the ability to change “automatic” and ingrained responses to those thoughts. Since awareness of personal core values is increased, the awareness of what one really wants to achieve can also be increased. It inevitably becomes easier to set goals and take positive actions toward achieving those goals, even when circumstances present challenges.

People who work at attaining psychological flexibility, whether in workshops/private sessions or through their own spiritual practice, will see many benefits, and their awareness of what is going on in each moment will increase. Their ability to watch thoughts and feelings as they come and go will be strengthened. They will then be able to make conscious choices about which thoughts to act on and which to ignore.

References:

  1. Kashdan, Todd B., and Rottenberg, Jonathan (2010). Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health. Retrieved on 5/22/14 from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2998793/
  2. Archer, Rob (2014). The Role of Building Flexibility in Building Performance and Well-Being. Retrieved on 5/22/14 from: http://workingwithact.com/psychological-flexibility-at-work/the-role-of-psychological-flexibility-in-building-performance-and-wellbeing/
  3. Hayes, Steven. Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (AAQ) and Variations. Retrieved on 5/22/14 from: http://contextualscience.org/acceptance_action_questionnaire_aaq_and_variations

© Copyright 2014 by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, therapist in San Francisco, CA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Carmella June 9th, 2014 at 3:51 PM #1

    This is something that I LONG to have and yet every time I try to be more mindful of adverse reactions and my quick rush to judgement I see pretty quickly that I still have a lot of work to do to get there.

  • Delia June 10th, 2014 at 4:21 AM #2

    hmmm can you imagine what a better state of mind most of us would be in if only we could discover the way for more psychological flexibility in our own lives?
    However I think that a large part of this is that we want for this to be something that others espouse but perhaps we are not willing to do the hard work and make the sometimes uncomfortable choices to be more flexible ourselves>

  • Vaughn June 10th, 2014 at 3:47 PM #3

    I think that many people would read this and think that flexibility is a sign of weakness in thsi way, that it could cause you to compromise what you really feel about something when really it is being more aware and more open to new experiences.

  • joy June 14th, 2014 at 9:19 AM #4

    I find myself at times very much struggling to even identify what my true core values really are.

    is that normal? Do most people struggle with that at times?

  • Douglas June 14th, 2014 at 3:19 PM #5

    Joy,
    I would suppose so. Values are something that we learn, therefore; we might not know what “our” values are if we are not taught to discover them.

  • Karl June 16th, 2014 at 5:21 PM #6

    If I am in a leadership position then someone who is psychologically flexible will definitely be someone that I want to be on my team. In any kind of group work environment you are going to want people around you who are strong, who knwo what they are focused on, but also have the capability to be flexible and fluid and know that there are going to be those times when you have to compromise to work well with others. Rigidity and knowing yourself can be god in some situations but you have to admit that being around someone who has more of the flexible traits makes getting along and getting things accomplished so much easier. This is not only going to be important on a personal level but very much too on a professional level,

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