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What's in your toolbox?

Updated Thursday, 4th March 2021

Psychological flexibility is a Swiss army knife in uncertain times.

"If you only have a hammer all your problems look like nails."

This quote, also known as ‘The Law of the instrument’ highlights an essential aspect of problem-solving. If there are insufficient tools available to solve problems, this shapes how problems are perceived and how much flexibility there is in solving them.

Psychological flexibility is a 'Swiss army knife' concept in psychology that has received a great deal of attention in recent years as uncertainty and resulting from social, political, and technological change is becoming the norm. Climate change, the technological impact of AI, future pandemics, and political/economic upheavals, are likely to disrupt societies and individuals in the future. Adapting to this context requires flexibility in coping with such disruptions effectively and without the certainty of what such problems will look like in the future.

Psychological flexibility can be defined as the extent of how well a person adapts to changing situational demands, reorganises their resources, shifts perspective and resolves conflicts between competing desires, needs, and life domains (Kashdan, et al., 2010). Definitions by therapists working on increasing psychological flexibility define it as, ‘the ability to fully contact the present moment and the thoughts and feelings it contains without needless defence ... persisting or changing behaviour in the pursuit of goals and values (Hayes et al., 2006, p. 9).

We can think of psychological flexibility using the analogy of a tree branch. Flexibility allows the branch to sway in the wind without breaking. The characteristic of returning to its original position is called resilience, and it is reasonable to think of psychological flexibility and psychological resilience as being similarly related. The former is the ability to move, and the other is the ability to bounce back.

Psychological flexibility is a little like a trait of personality, a characteristic which people possess to greater or lesser extents.

However, such 'traits' are likely to be governed by a combination of other factors, including cognitive ability, thought, decision-making and creativity, and factors influenced by social and personal development throughout life. In addition, psychological flexibility may be constrained by lack of opportunity and other factors that are external to an individual, although flexibility may in some situations also be a response to such constraints.

It is useful to distinguish psychological flexibility from other, related, forms of flexibility that are also psychological in nature. First, cognitive flexibility has been described as the ability to switch between different concepts in response to environmental stimuli. This ability is important in learning and in tasks performance, for example switching between different languages, tasks, or concepts, either consciously or subconsciously. There are a variety of different forms of flexibility that have been proposed that are largely related to creativity and based on the work of Guildford and colleagues (Guildford's, 1959). 

  • Ideational flexibility - the capacity to generate different ideas
  • Spontaneous flexibility - the capacity to generate a variety of different responses in a situation) and
  • Adaptive flexibility - the ability to switch categories/concepts as an adaption for solving a problem that can otherwise not be solved.

An example of how psychological flexibility may appear in action. 

To move away from the more abstract ideas about psychological flexibility an example might be useful to see some of the different ways in which psychological flexibility occurs in people’s lives.

Jan has been given notice of redundancy from her managerial job at a manufacturing company and will need to find reemployment within three months before the redundancy payment will be used up (changing situational demand). She is initially worried because there have been many redundancies and few new jobs. However, she views the redundancy as an opportunity to move on in her career and gain new experience in life. She decides to use her LinkedIn network to contact a few people she has worked with in the past to reconnect with and find out about vacancies. In addition, she updates her CV and starts applying for some vacancies advertised on job search websites (like Monster.co.uk) and LinkedIn. She also attends some short workshops on how to work as a freelancer (reconfiguring resources). 

Photo of a flower growing through the pavement  Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Photo © Carlos Filipe Batalha Calretas | Dreamstime.com Resilience and flexibility fosters a growth mentality

After two interviews, Jan feels a little worried that she has not been successful and some negative thoughts about not being good enough to enter her mind. However, she quickly realises that this type of thinking does not help and focusses instead on what she learned from the feedback to her interviews (shifting perspective). She uses this to help refine her interview technique, to anticipate the questions she might be asked and work through her past positions to think of examples of her competencies (reconfiguring resources). One of the companies at which Jan had an interview calls her some days afterwards because an applicant did not take up their post and offers Jan a job, which is in a different location to the one she applied for. This job would involve a daily one-hour commute, but the pay is slightly higher. Jan has school-age children and a potential move to the new town would mean problems with the school run because Jan’s partner Sue has an even lengthier commute, meaning she is unavailable to do the school run, at either end of the day. Jan sits down with Sue, and together they discuss how they might resolve the issue (balancing competing desires, needs and life domains). They come up with a plan to negotiate different flexible working hours and working from home arrangements for each of them. Both Jan's and Sue's employers are willing to accommodate the plan.

As the example shows, psychological flexibility plays a big role in helping Jan adapt to the change in circumstance mobilising their personal resources (e.g., communication skills, decision-making, problem-solving). It illustrates some examples of reconfiguring of resources, shifting in perspective and balancing between competing aspects, values, and goals. Jan is demonstrating flexibility and recognising that with job offers, there is some room for negotiation that would enable a more flexible arrangement that would work for her, enabling her to engage with interviews effectively and succeed in regaining employment.

Using insights from Acceptance commitment therapy for increasing psychological flexibility.

There are few things that create more uncertainty in people’s life than losing a job through involuntary redundancy. Some people respond to redundancy in ways that are understandable but may not be helpful if that response persists. Shock, anger, worry, anxiety, and uncertainty are common emotions people may experience and on occasion become stuck with.

Insights from acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) can be beneficial in helping unglue people in this and similar situations. The purpose of ACT is the development of psychological flexibility that enables improvements in people’s mental health. ACT is highly relevant in coaching and practising self-care and thus can be effective during disruptions.

The acronym ACT is what is known as the ‘ACT triflex’:

A = Accepting your thoughts and feelings; being present.

C = Choosing a valued direction.

T = Taking action. Alternatively, this can be summarised as "be present, open up, and do what matters." (Harris, 2019).

The first step, 'acceptance', is often the hardest; not accepting a situation makes it difficult to move forward, difficult to look at the different opportunities and options. If one does not accept a situation, one is less likely to accept any reasons for personal change. As a result, a person may become reluctant to change, react defensively to the suggestion they might need to change and ultimately be less psychologically flexible and less able to adapt.

Should you be faced with turbulent and disruptive moments, the RAIN acronym can be useful to help with acceptance of the situation:

R = Recognise what is happening internally, name the emotion (e.g., I'm feeling scared; I'm feeling angry).

A = Accept the feeling. This is useful because you cannot change a situation and can't change how you feel about it. Do not try to change what cannot be changed.

I = Investigate what the experience holds. What is happening in your body, which beliefs thoughts and values manifest in your mind? What can you learn from the experience? What else is there?

N = No identification with this emotion is required. By identifying with the emotion, you develop an identity as angry or sad. This prolongs the state of non-acceptance and negative thinking that comes with identifying with a negative emotion or thought. Instead of thinking "I'm useless" think "I am having the thought that I am useless". Rather than identifying with the contents of your mind, remain detached from what your mind creates.

Psychological flexibility is a bit like a muscle – by using approaches, such as ACT or RAIN one can develop the skills necessary for developing rapid acceptance of changed circumstances. Proactively adopting such methods can help you be successful in all areas of your life and be better prepared for crises, uncertainty, and upheavals.

Life change is a given; what one does about it is something one can learn to master.

References

  • Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.

  • Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review30(7), 865-878.

  • Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A. and Lillis, J. (2006) Acceptance and commitment therapy: model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1–25.

  • Guilford, J. P. (1968) Intelligence, creativity, and the* educational implications. San Diego, CA: Knapp.

 

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