15th Nov 2010 |
What is Psychological Flexibility?
The Career Psychologist is dedicated to helping people develop thinking skills that can help them transform their careers. Of all of these skills, the most important is something called psychological flexibility.
A huge amount of evidence now suggests that becoming more psychologically flexible helps people get unstuck, deal with stress, improve wellbeing, but also to build more meaningful lives built around what it is they really value.
So what exactly is psychological flexibility?
The technical definition 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 getting really present to the current situation, including the difficult thoughts and emotions that many of us experience, and to accept these as part of a rich and meaningful life. This acceptance is critical, because research shows that trying to get rid of our difficult thoughts and emotions increases their frequency, strength and duration (Wegner, 1994). Instead, psychological flexibilty means holding thoughts and emotions lightly, seeing them as part of our ongoing, everyday experience as human beings.
But it is also a critical skill because of the second half of the definition: change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends”.
In other words, we accept difficult thoughts or emotions in order to move towards our values. And whenever we move towards our values – or anything that matters to us – we usually experience difficult thoughts and emotions.
For example, if I want to move towards a career with more meaning and purpose I will almost certainly need to accept difficult thoughts and emotions as part of my journey. If something really matters to me I also fear not having it.
It also helps to understand psychological flexibility’s opposite orientation—experiential avoidance (EA). EA is the tendency to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings, even when doing so creates problems. 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, as our animation explains:
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 does make it more vital and values-directed. And that is what most of our clients want; a career worth pursuing, and a life worth living.