My last blog discussed stepping in dog poop and becoming aware of the influence expectations have on behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. If you haven’t had a chance to read that interesting story, check it out here!
For this blog, I wanted to build off that story and dive a little deeper by defining and understanding psychological flexibility. I´m going to use some references of a one of my favorite counseling approaches, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT for short). Side note: they want you to call it ¨act¨, not A-C-T. ACT folks define psychological flexibility as ¨contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values.¨
An Occasional Symptom of Living a Life of Meaning
So that´s a bit much at first glance. A simpler way I’ve heard ACT teachers describe psychological flexibility is engaging in the present moment and committing to living a life of meaning. I love the distinction of the word ¨meaning¨. To often people, myself included, get caught up trying chase down happiness, which can feel like a hamster on a wheel running round and round. We can also get down when the goal of happiness is not achieved. I prefer to think of happiness as an occasional symptom of living a life of meaning. By living a life in line with my values, I sometimes feel happiness or other classic positive emotions. But other times, ¨negative¨ emotions like sadness or anger show up. It doesn’t mean the day is a failure or ¨bad¨, because honestly, I only have so much control with how I feel. What is much more clearly in my control is what effort I am putting into pursuing values that matter to me, like being honest, kind, providing for my family, being active, etc. Psychological flexibility is about continuing towards what matters as the messes of life happen.
Check out this one time I was NOT psychologically flexible. It started with me standing two feet from my TV as my favorite college football team, the Georgia Bulldogs, were playing for the national championship a couple of months ago. So I’m standing, having abandoned my seat a while ago, as this game is INTENSE. My team was up initially, then we lost the lead to dang Alabama, and now we´re in overtime. Georgia has never played for a national championship in my lifetime! Well, as most of you know, Alabama quarterback let loose a long pass for a touchdown to win the game. At that moment, as the ball was being caught by their receiver, psychological flexibility flew out the window. ¨NOOOOOOOO!!!¨, I yelled as I turned from the anguish on the screen. Not thinking, I (lightly) kicked the first thing I saw, my daughter´s little chair sitting on the floor. It even has her name embroidered on it. Don’t freak out because she wasn’t in the chair! In fact, she had been asleep in her room for hours and it was only my wife and I in the living room. Well, that story ends with a stern look and a ¨talking-to¨ from my wife about how we don’t kick things in this house, especially not your daughter’s things. So not my best moment. It should be noted that being reliable, calm, a good father and husband are more important to me than Georgia football. I had momentarily lost sight of those values and got caught up in the external result of the game.
The easiest way I can determine how I’m doing with my own psychological flexibility practice is by checking my balance. It’s helpful for me to consider life across three broad categories: the head, the heart, and the body. My objective is to continuously invest in all three areas. The way I define investments in the head category are learning, reading, talking to other counselors, and talking to clients about interesting concepts. For the heart category, I´m investing into genuine connection to family, friends, and my spiritual beliefs and rituals. The body category investments look like, going to the gym, riding my bike, taking my dog for a walk, and occasionally pushing myself in a competitive sport or race. I find this format helps me to catch myself when things get off or constricted. Some days, it may feel as if you invested in all three areas, yet still feel down or negative. Remember, the point is not to arrive at happiness, but rather to pursue meaning and experience happiness as an occasional symptom.
I hope this has been helpful in understanding psychological flexibility. A lot of people become psychologically constricted as the pressures of life occur. They tend to hone in on a few areas of life, like their child with the addiction or that husband who doesn’t seem really checked in. For others, it´s thinking only of friends and forgetting school, family, and sports. As cobwebs and dust grow on the other areas of life, psychological flexibility goes down.
If you are interested in learning more about getting flexible, there are some really good resources out there that explain ACT and psychological flexibility in more detail. One book I enjoy is ¨The Happiness Trap¨ by Dr. Russ Harris (it even has an illustrated version!). Dr. Russ Harris also has some helpful short videos on his Youtube channel which is named ¨Dr. Russ Harris- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy¨. Another popular workbook is ¨Get out of your mind and into your life¨ by Dr. Steven Hayes. My hope is to dive more into other components of ACT in future blogs, such as value pursuit and acceptance. Thanks for reading!