Updated: May 12, 2022
Psychological flexibility--that’s a lot of syllables. At first glance, this phrase may seem to be just more psychobabble jargon. However, the term defines a key aspect of mental health. Specifically, psychological flexibility is a healthy approach to interacting with life, including moments filled with pure joy and times of deep suffering. Ultimately, being psychologically flexible means moving through life with less rigidity, adapting to change in the present moment, accepting emotions and reality, and moving towards what matters most.
The world is unpredictable; hence why the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant.” Living in uncertainty can be scary. It’s natural to seek control, but the trouble is that trying to control everything takes energy and attention away from living. Instead of engaging with relationships, making a difference, and being the person you want to be--life becomes about controlling situations, avoiding feelings, and living in the past or the future. This represents a lack of psychological flexibility, and along with it comes suffering and rigidity. When all of your energy is spent striving for the impossible, who’s got time for living a meaningful life?
On the other hand, psychological flexibility empowers humans to embrace that uncertainty is a part of life. This realization allows us to be more present in life, to notice thoughts and emotions, and to commit to engaging meaningfully with the present. So how does one learn to approach life with less rigidity and more openness?
According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), psychological flexibility occurs through six components. A major part of psychological flexibility is living in the present moment. Instead of focusing on the past or worrying about the future, you can acknowledge your experiences as you encounter them. Additionally, psychological flexibility includes the ability to defuse or to recognize thoughts and feelings as experiences rather than as facts. Acceptance is another important aspect of being flexible. Acceptance allows thoughts, emotions, and experiences to be experienced rather than avoided. This also includes accepting that life is messy at times, that suffering occurs, and that you can move toward what matters to you in spite of these realities.
The fourth component, “self as context,” refers to perspective-taking and identity. Instead of seeing thoughts, feelings, or even past behaviors as defining factors of who you are, you can experience life while observing your thoughts and emotions, recognizing that you are in the driver’s seat. Instead of focusing on past mistakes, you can develop values, which are chosen ways of being and living that allow you to take action and make choices that are congruent with the person you are. Lastly, you can engage in committed action, which is the perseverance to pursue values in everyday life in order to create habits that align with values.
Psychological flexibility is a lifelong process of pursuing and maintaining wellness, while truly embracing all that life has to offer. Psychological flexibility may appear to be some abstract, theoretical term, but utilizing elements of psychological flexibility in everyday life can contribute to a meaningful life.
If you are curious about enhancing psychological flexibility in your own life, you may want to consider seeking therapy from a clinician who is trained in ACT, an evidence-based treatment modality for a variety of purposes.
By Mackenzie Brackett-Wisener