Psychological Flexibility

You’ve heard of physical flexibility right? But what about Psychological flexibility? In this article sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole takes a close look at this ‘game changing’ mental skill.

Psychological flexibility has never been so important.

What Is Psychological Flexibility?

Psychological flexibility – heard of it? Don’t worry if you haven’t. Many qualified psychologists would struggle if you asked them what psychological flexibility is. And maybe just as important, what it is not.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at the origins of the word flexible from which flexibility derives. The Online Etymology Dictionary Etymonline shows the below.

Flexible (adjective):

early 15c., “capable of being bent; mentally or spiritually pliant,” from Old French flexible or directly from Latin flexibilis “that may be bent, pliant, flexible, yielding;” figuratively “tractable, inconstant,” from flex-, past participle stem of flectere “to bend,”

The two words that jump out from this are yielding and bend. We’ll come back to these.

Of course, the word flexibility from a human point of view is much more commonly associated with physical flexibility. So much so that if you booked in to see an exercise physiologist and asked him or her to help you design a program to boost flexibility they’re very unlikely to say do you mean mental or physical.

The flexibility of the body means that there is a far greater range of possible movements. Sometimes this is most beneficial in an injury prevention scenario. Two similar athletes who endure the same legal but brutal rugby league tackle are most likely impacted not by how strong they are, but by how flexible.

Of course, there are sports whereby physical flexibility is arguably the number one priority. Gymnastics and many dancing pursuits emphasise the importance of suppleness.

Outcomes vs Processes

It’s impossible to overemphasize the usefulness of being able to separate processes versus outcomes. And to realise how much more influence you have on processes. In fact, I think each of the last five articles has mentioned this at least once. If you’ve missed any of these the easiest way is to go to our blog homepage here and scroll down.

So, what are physical and psychological flexibility then? Are they outcomes or processes? Feel free to stop reading for a while if you want to try and figure that out on your own.

Both types of flexibility are outcomes. They are the consequence of the processes. If these processes are good (sufficiently scientific) then the consequence may result in some improvement. If the processes are not-so-good … you get the picture.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with outcomes as long as you know that they are outcomes. In fact, they often make for an invaluable starting point. It’s far more useful to want to improve your physical flexibility than your physical health for example. In the same way, it is better to want to improve your psychological flexibility than your “mindset”.

But after we have chosen this as one of our priorities it’s then time to start working out what processes are required. From a physical flexibility point of view, the majority of these are going to be some form of stretching. But not just stretching. I’m happy to be corrected by genuine experts in this field but I’m guessing sleep, nutrition, and recovery methods also aid in better physical flexibility.

Dr. Steven Hayes

The concept of psychological flexibility is mainly credited to Steven C. Hayes and his related work on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. As he himself better explains in the below TEDTalk video Dr. Hayes stumbled across the concept partially to help with his own spiraling panic disorder.

In the ensuing years, as is the case with many academics, he produced an avalanche of scientific studies and books on the subject. Maybe too many?

Potentially due to the nature of our work at Condor Performance whereby overcomplicating concepts would see us swiftly thrown out of the locker room I have always tried to simplify where possible. In the below short 6-minute video I really try and explain just the fundamentals.

If you have any comments or questions about the contents of this video please add them to the bottom of this page and I will reply so other readers can benefit.

Psychological Rigidity

Sometimes when we’re trying to wrap our minds around a concept it can be useful to know what the opposite is. When learning about good manners it can be helpful to know what poor manners look like.

The opposite of psychological flexibility is psychological rigidity. It is interesting how obvious it is that physical rigidity is clearly not desirable. But in some circles, psychological rigidity can be regarded as beneficial. For example, certain aspects of the military might believe this.

On a scale of one to ten between rigidity and flexibility where zero represents maximum rigidity, I am about a four. But I used to be a one, maybe even a zero. Certain traits of psychological rigidity are extreme rule-following and stubbornness. My way or the highway. This is fine if you live by yourself on a desert island but in the real world, it causes issues.

My journey from one to four is mostly thanks to my wife and kids. Children, especially the youngest ones, just don’t play by the rules. It’s literally how they’re designed. So a psychologically rigid parent is always going to really struggle. I had to learn to be more flexible through absolute necessity.

But I am still only a four. Why not higher?

My excuse is that I am time-poor. Hence many of the mindfulness strategies that I insist my clients do I only manage to do myself fleetingly. But I am highly motivated to become more psychologically flexible. Watch this space.

To Bend, To Yield

Maybe more than ever before life in 2022 is requiring us to bend, adapt, to yield. Whether it be learning to train in a hotel room during quarantine. Or work around canceled events. Or just turn up to practice when your thoughts and feelings are both screaming “what’s the point” or “stay in bed mate”.

In a 2019 book by Dr. Hayes that I would highly recommend called A Liberated Mind, he goes into a lot more detail about six core practices that when combined improve Psychological flexibility. They are defusion, acceptance, present moment, self-as-a-context, values, and committed action. Here is a quick summary of each from my understanding.

  • Defusion is best summed up by “you are NOT your thoughts”.
  • Acceptance is mainly about the benefits of learning to radically experience and observe (not change) all thoughts and feelings – even the yucky ones.
  • The Present Moment is about trying to focus on the here and now.
  • Self-As-Context is the concept that people are not the content of their thoughts or feelings, but rather the consciousness experiencing said thoughts and feelings.
  • Values are chosen qualities of purposive action that can never be obtained as an object but can be instantiated moment by moment.
  • Committed Actions are intentional, purposeful behaviours towards one / some of your values.

Processes Need Repetition

I find that one common stumbling block with the above six skills is that they are often confused with processes. But they are not, they too are outcomes. Think of it like this. The big outcome is psychological flexibility. The little outcomes, that lead to the big one, are these six skills. So each of them requires a set of methods in order to become skillful. Some of these methods can help with more than one. For example, regular mindfulness ought to help the first three.

For values, the process is essential to sit down and come up with some. Typically about three or four core values are enough. And finally, for committed actions, some good old-fashioned planning and habit forming is a good place to start.

Quite understandably many people feel like they would benefit from having a guide or a coach when trying to get started. If this is you, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch and ask about our one-on-one psychology services. Although the majority of the work we do is in the context of competitive sport and other performance domains we can, and do, work with anyone.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

One thought on “Psychological Flexibility”

  1. Great article! I’ve found learning more about psychological flexibility to be extremely useful and insightful.

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