What is Psychological Flexibility?

The main focus of ACT is to increase something called psychological flexibility.  But what is psychological flexibility and why is it important?

Of all the psychological phenomena that we have studied, this is the one that is of by far the most help to the people we work with in organisations.  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 has been defined as “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 our clients want from their career change; a life worth living.

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