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Everything you need to know about psychological flexibility

June 5, 2023

If you spend any time in the world of HR, people management, business psychology or even just LinkedIn, you’ll no doubt have heard the term ‘psychological flexibility’ thrown around a lot recently.

It’s easy to assume that you already know what psychological flexibility is, right? It’s just being flexible, psychologically - surely?

But it’s not quite that simple.

So that’s what we’re diving into today: what psychological flexibility is, what it isn’t, how being psychologically flexible can help you in the workplace and how you can develop psychological flexibility.

Basically, as the carefully-crafted title so aptly suggests: everything you need to know about psychological flexibility.

[H2] What is psychological flexibility?

Psychological flexibility comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a behaviour-based branch of psychotherapy originally developed in the 1980s by American clinical psychologist Steven C Hayes.

Like the name suggests, ACT has its foundations in a belief that our thoughts and feelings shouldn’t be the driving force behind our behaviours. We can never entirely eliminate negative thoughts, so we should instead accept them whilst remaining committed to our longer-term desires and goals.

Psychological flexibility is the skill that allows us to do that - and therefore the main goal of ACT is to increase psychological flexibility.

Within that framework, psychological flexibility is defined as the ability to engage with a present experience fully and without defence.

What does that really mean though?

It means the ability to put our present feelings and thoughts to one side and focus on the task at hand. It means seeing feelings and thoughts more lightly, so that we’re able to work towards our longer-term values and goals instead of being diverted by feelings along the way.

The ‘flexibility’ part of psychological flexibility comes from the idea that psychologically flexible people don’t buy into rigid thinking or doing things a particular way just because that’s how it’s always been done. They’re able to shift their perspective fluidly from the present moment to a desired future outcome and give more importance to the future instead.

And we know what you’re thinking right now… surely the goal should be to not have those negative thoughts and feelings in the first place?

Well, yes. In an ideal world we’d all be positive and happy and bouncy all day long.

But in reality, that’s not the case.

And ACT’s approach to psychological flexibility acknowledges that we don’t live in an ideal world and also draws on Relational Frame Theory (RFT)’s belief that a thought can’t be deleted or erased or undone once it exists.

If we can’t undo a negative thought, the next best thing is to accept it, acknowledge it, and act according to our long-term values and goals instead.

[H2] What does psychological flexibility look like in practice?

To understand what psychological flexibility looks like, it’s easier to look at what psychological inflexibility looks like first.

If someone is psychologically inflexible, they’re likely to:

  • Respond emotionally (both positively and negatively) to situations they’re faced with - and will often regret those reactions later on
  • Focus so much on worrying about potential negative consequences that they’re unable to take meaningful action towards their desired positive outcome
  • Have an unhelpful attachment to some aspects of their identity, e.g. seniority or profession
  • Have strong views about the ‘right’ way to do things, even if that way is not helping them reach their goals
  • Spend a lot of time overthinking, overanalysing and struggling to make decisions

So, logically, the flipside of those elements are the traits of someone who is psychologically flexible. They’re likely to:

  • Respond rationally to situations they’re faced with, while acknowledging their emotions without acting on them
  • Accept that negative consequences may occur, but prioritise their drive for the desired positive outcome
  • Have healthy relationships with their self-identity, without hanging all their happiness on one single element
  • Be flexible in their approach, changing tactics if they’re not getting the results they desire
  • Be able to stop themselves from overthinking and be able to make rational, informed decisions without letting emotions get in the way

[H2] How can being psychologically flexible help in the workplace?

Now that we know where psychological safety has its roots, what it is and what it isn’t, let’s get into the specifics: how can psychological flexibility help in the workplace?

As business psychologists, our goal is to help individuals achieve their full potential at work and help organisations to help their individuals perform better and support their wellbeing. So how can a focus on psychological flexibility fit in with those goals?

Simple. High performance at work requires individuals to have specific psychological skills:

  • Task focus: high-performers are able to focus on the task at hand for long periods without being distracted by internal or external disruptions.
  • Goal clarity: high-performers know what they want to achieve and they’re able to make clear, concrete plans to achieve those goals.
  • Intrinsic motivation: those goals have an element of intrinsic motivation; high-performers have a drive to achieve for their own reasons, rather than achieving just for money or status or other extrinsic rewards.
  • Minimising experiential avoidance: high-performers are able to separate reality from their feelings, which means they don’t try to avoid unpleasant situations or behaviours to avoid experiencing those feelings. High-performers embrace discomfort and recognise that feelings and thoughts are temporary and aren’t facts.

And, guess what?

Psychological flexibility helps with every single one of those high-performance factors. How?

By being mindful and focused on the present, task focus is much easier - and by prioritising long-term goals over short-term desires, psychologically flexible people are able to embrace mundane tasks that are contributing to their long-term goals.

Psychologically flexible people are also able to recognise the difference between challenging situations and situations where an alternative approach would work better - they’re not stuck in their ways or rigid in their approach to things, which helps them thrive in high-pressure work situations where rapid change is common.

[H2] How can you develop psychological flexibility?

And now for the bit you’ve all been waiting for: if psychological flexibility is so good, how can you develop it and take advantage of its numerous benefits yourself?

Thankfully, psychological flexibility isn’t something you’re either born with or not. Some people, especially those with greater levels of emotional intelligence, are more naturally psychologically flexible than others - but it can be learned and developed over time, even if you show no psychologically flexibility traits right now.

Here are 3 tried-and-tested methods of developing psychological flexibility.

[H3] Practice mindfulness

The core tenet of psychologically flexibility is being able to be present in the moment - which is exactly what mindfulness teaches us too. Being consciously aware of what’s happening in the here-and-now isn’t something we’re particularly good at in the modern world because there are so many distractions - but it is something we can get better at with practice. 

Being more mindful supports our efforts to be psychologically flexible, because we’re showing our brains that being present in the moment is a positive thing - and that the reality around us is more important than what our thoughts and feelings are leading us to believe. Instead of relying heavily on our (often unreliable) thoughts, mindfulness encourages us to focus our attention on the reality instead - which allows us to respond and react more rationally and focus on our long-term goals instead of short-term distractions.

[H3] Practice defusion

Defusion is defined as the ability to watch your thoughts come and go and then choose which to act upon. It’s a decoupling of thoughts and behaviour, much like what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches us.

As we mentioned before, it’s not about completely eradicating negative thoughts from our psyche - it’s about recognising that their existence is inevitable, but our behaviour isn’t. Toxic positivity has us believing that happy, successful people are happy and content every moment of every day, but that’s not the case.

Instead, psychologically flexible people are able to observe negative thoughts and feelings, accept they exist, and instead choose to act on rational, goal-driven thoughts instead.

[H3] Take values-based action

Psychological flexibility is much simpler to put into practice if you know why you’re striving so hard for a particular goal - and if that goal aligns with your values.

We might feel like we really desperately want that promotion that comes with a £10k pay rise - but if our values centre more around time freedom and hedonism, on the face of it that goal isn’t directly connected to our values. BUT if our values centre around time freedom and hedonism and that £10k pay rise will allow us to work fewer hours and invest more money in fun leisure activities on the weekends, that goal suddenly feels more aligned.

The important thing here is to properly scrutinise your goals and get to the bottom of why you want to achieve them. Intrinsic motivation (i.e. values-aligned goals that give you an innate drive to achieve them) is always more effective than extrinsic motivation, and having goals that are intrinsically motivating makes the ability to resist outside distractions easier to achieve.

[H2] Psychological flexibility: the summary

So, there we have it: everything you could possibly need to know about psychological flexibility.

(Well, everything we could fit into a blog post that didn’t turn into an entire book, at least.)

Psychological flexibility is a bit of a buzzword at the moment - but hopefully now you can understand why! 

Developing psychological flexibility has a positive knock-on impact on so many other areas of our psychology, our lives and our work AND it’s fairly simple to start developing right now, too - why wouldn’t you love it?!

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