Monday, 15 November 2010

What is Psychological Flexibility?

I tend to rabbit on and on about psychological flexibility.  Why?

Because of all the psychological phenomena that I have studied, this is the one that is of by far the most help to the people I work with.  Becoming more psychologically flexible helps people not just cope with stress but to do more of what it is they really value.  So what exactly is it?

Psychological flexibility is “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends” (Biglan, Hayes, & Pistorello, 2008).

'Contacting the present more fully' means willing to be present with difficult thoughts and emotions and to accept ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be.  This is a critical difference, because research shows that trying to get rid of our difficult thoughts and emotions increases their frequency, strength and duration (Wegner, 1994).

It also helps to understand psychological flexibility's opposite orientation—experiential avoidance (EA).  EA is the tendency to avoid or control unpleasant thoughts and feelings, even when doing so creates problems for a person.  For example, someone who has the thought that they “are stupid” may avoid situations (e.g., a classroom) that might embarrass them.  However, this strategy has the effect of systematically narrowing one's options in life. 

It's easy to see how EA can be a problem in career change, but empirical evidence also associates EA with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poor work performance and chronic stress.  Conversely, becoming more psychologically flexible allows people to cope with life more effectively and to derive wellbeing as a consequence of valued living. 

Being psychologically flexible doesn't make life easier or more pleasant.  But it makes it more vital and  values-directed.  And that, incidentally, is what most of my clients want from their career change; a life worth living.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's interesting. But could EA also be a positive thing in some instances? If a person doesn't enjoy being in a certain environment, and has never enjoyed for various reasons, why pursue such environments in the future on purpose? This could be applied to being extrovert vs. introvert. Why do the opposite?

My point is that we all seem to be born with certain temperaments that are "default" in us, and going against them is very difficult. Perhaps this is what we should listen to and choose a life path that fits our temperaments more or less? Of course, a natural desire to get oneself "out of one's comfort zone" and improve in areas one isn't naturally good at has a place too.

Maybe it is just the way we explain these terms (EA and psychological flexibility) that bugs me a bit, because avoiding unpleasant feelings by avoiding a particular environment seems to me a normal human reaction in healthy doses.

I'd appreciate your take on this.

Thank you for the clear article.