We all feel stuck from time to time, but for some people, it can feel like a way of life. You may feel very stuck in a job you don’t like, stuck in a relationship that doesn’t nourish you, or stuck on moving forward with your plan / goals. Feeling stuck is like spinning your wheels when your car is stuck in mud. You can accelerate all you want, but the car won’t budge.
Psychological flexibility means we can stay present with and adapt to life’s challenges. We take useful action despite our thoughts and feelings, and stay true to our values.
This can include things like:
- knowing what to focus on and what to let go of
- recognising when our behaviours aren’t helpful and changing them
- building awareness when we might be wrong and being open to change perspective
- finding balance between the different parts of our lives
- finding creative ways to deal with challenges without compromising our values.
When we’re trying to understand flexibility, it helps to consider the opposite, psychological rigidity which can look like:
- a refusal to change our behaviours or see what we are doing that is causing our life to be difficult
- using ‘avoidance coping’ (putting our head in the sand instead of dealing with things)
- overthinking and worrying instead of adapting
- over focussing on some areas of life and neglecting others
- sticking to ideas even if we don’t know we believe in them
- being knocked over by stress
- unable to plan and work towards goals.
It’s not about being nice all the time.
Psychological flexibility doesn’t mean you are always nice and accommodating. Remember, it means that you are able to discern the best approach to a situation. Sometimes unpleasant emotions and anger help us be more assertive, or help us create change in the world.
The ACT Model of Psychological Flexibility
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a type of talk therapy that has teaching you psychological flexibility as its core mission.
It offers a triangle model of psychological flexibility that has three points, or ‘pillars’: be present, be open, and do what matters.
It suggests these three pillars are achieved by the six following tools as in the diagram below:
- contact with the present moment
- self as context
- committed action.
So what do these mean and how do they work?
- WORK AT ACTIVE ACCEPTANCE.
Note that this is not acceptance in a ‘grin and bearing it’, passive kind of way. But as:
“the active, voluntary embracing of moment-to-moment experience….a willful experiencing of feelings as feelings, thoughts as thoughts, sensations as sensations, and so forth.”
- RECOGNISE THAT YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS (DEFUSION).
Fusion is when we think we are our thoughts, instead of realising that we are something bigger than just what we think and feel. What ACT therapy calls ‘defusion‘ means creating some distance. Instead of saying, “I am sick”, we step back and recognise, “I am a person who is currently not feeling well, and has the thought that she is sick.”
- BE IN THE PRESENT MOMENT.
Mindfulness is a tool that helps you be aware of the present moment. How do you feel right now? What are you thinking? What is going on around you? It helps us to make better choices with what we are actually dealing with, instead of using rigid responses based on past experiences or our fear of what ‘might’ happen in the future.
And mindfulness can also help you recognise that ‘You’ beyond the ‘you’. That you are not the changing content of your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, but something bigger and more permanent, simply experiencing it all. This is what ACT therapy calls ‘self as context‘.
- RECOGNISE AND LIVE OUT YOUR VALUES.
If we don’t clarify what really matters to us, our personal values, we can always feel exhausted and stuck. When we start to align our life to values, on the other hand, we have more energy and we see more clearly.
And we can finally take committed action. When we are moving towards our values then we are less likely to be deterred by challenges as we really care about where we are heading. We are more likely to put our valued goals into action.
- WORK ON YOUR CREATIVITY.
Creativity doesn’t have to mean making art. It can mean learning to brainstorm, or challenging yourself daily to do one thing differently, whether that is the way you load the dishwasher or working from a different table in the house.
- LEARN TO PERSPECTIVE HOP.
One of the fastest ways to shift a situation is to see it from another perspective and to always remember we are only seeing one side of things.
- WORK ON LIFE BALANCE.
Take time each week to check in with all areas of your life, from family to work and money, social life and hobbies to spirituality. What areas have you spend time on? What has been neglected? What’s important to you now?
- SEE BEYOND ASSUMPTIONS.
This is especially important when it comes to relationships.
In his comprehensive paper, “Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health”, Todd B. Kashdan points out that:
“Premature commitments about a person’s personality, including expectations about how they will behave, fuel our natural tendency to “tune out.” In our motivation to reach closure about a person…., we also end our search for new and potentially useful information about each situation being different (even slightly) from any other”.
We all get stuck from time to time – we can pigeon hole ourselves and we can pigeon hole others. Talking, opening up and getting a better understanding of what is going on inside of us can make a real difference.
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