How to develop Psychological Flexibility

 

nosce te ipsum

For a lifetime the human being have looked for a recipe for a life full of happiness and free of negative emotions and pain. As you already know a life free of pain is utopia for it is in the nature of human being suffering. The true father of Psychoanalysis, Arthur Schopenauer, in “On the Sufferings of the World” (1851),  claims: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.”.  In other words, suffering and misfortune are the general rule in life, not the exception.

Almost 3000 years ago The Oracle of Delphi said that the requirements to find happiness in life were the following ones:

  • Know Thyself (in latin: nosce te ipsum): you have to know who you are in order to find why you are in this world, to find what is your mission, your virtue. What do you really love doing?
  • Give a voice to your “daimon” (spirit): once you know who you are, and what you are here for, apply yourself to cultivate your virtues. This was not enough though. You have to apply yourself “Kata Metron”: within a certain limit. If your passion is acting, but you are not very talented, trying to become the new Anthony Hopkins , at any cost, would lead you only to unhappiness.

Following and applying these principles, for the old Greeks, was crucial to reach happiness, eudaimonia , that means the proper realization of your unique potential. Having a purpose in life is essential to live a meaningful and rich life but not enough though.

 

Suffering is result of psychological inflexibility that means reacting to what life throw at us in a rigid way, escaping from events, unpleasant and unwanted feelings rather than accepting them (experiential avoidance), cognitive fusion (being stuck” to our thoughts, attitudes, or beliefs) and many others…

A way to minimize suffering in life is to develop “psychological flexibility”. Kashdan and Rotterburg (2010) define psychological flexibility as the measure of how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands, (2) reconfigures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains. 

In the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy model we can develop and improve psychological flexibility applying the following principles:

  • Open Up: make room for unpleasant thoughts, feelings, memories, urges etc.. Don’t try to get rid of them nor to distract yourself from them. Allow them to freely flow through you and to come, stay and go as they please. Open up to sufferance because what you resist, persist. It is not easy to do but it is achievable through constant daily practice. Daily mindfulness meditation can be a powerful way to develop this skill.
  • Contact the present moment: while fighting unpleasant thoughts and feelings we lose contact with what is happening around us. We lose contact with life and it gets progressively more difficult to engage with people, to do things we need to do and to reach our goals. Tolstoy said: “There is only one time that is important: NOW”. The past and the future only exist in as thought occurring in the present. In the ACT model the three antidotes to cutting off, missing out and doing things poorly are: engaging skills (engage fully in whatever you are doing), savoring skills (savor, enjoy and appreciate what you are doing), and focusing skills (focus fully on whatever aspects of your current activity are most important). Harris, 2019. There is no need to practice formal meditation to master these skills but there are simple exercises to help you developing them.
  • Do what matters according to your values: acceptance and contacting the present moment is not enough to provide happiness and resilience. All our actions have to be in the direction of our values. Harris describes Values as desired qualities of physical or psychological action. Basically, how we want to behave on an ongoing base. What do you want to stand for in life? Examples of values are: personal growth, health, leisure, relationships (family members, colleagues, friends etc..). Every time we take actions we have to think if they bring us closer or further away from the person we want to be. Committed actions mean “doing what it take” to live according to your value (NB: there are not right or wrong, better or worse values). Those actions involve goal setting, action planning, skills training and…..most importantly…exposure.

Living according to our values is not easy and can take a big effort. Unwanted thoughts and feelings can get in the way of becoming the person we want to be. If I dream to have my own business I may struggle to do so.  Negative self-talk kicks in and tend to talk us away every time we try to direct the boat in the direction we want, especially if it is a new one we have never sailed before. At the end of the day our mind is just trying to protect us from potential danger.

 

It is imperative to build psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health: both mental and physical.

 

Thanks for reading,

 

Davide

 

  1. Kashdan, Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health, Clin Psychol Rev. 2010 Nov 1; 30(7): 865–878.
  2. Harris, ACT made simple, second edition

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