The pace of everyday life can be challenging at best and totally overwhelming at worst. While many of us find that planning and structure help to manage the everyday pressures of keeping up in modern society, in a world of volatile emotion, we sometimes need to take a different approach.
I study individuals who have survived serious trauma, such as relationship violence or military combat. However, the lessons I have learned also apply to people facing more typical stressors, like job change, relationship loss, illness or even severe weather. The key to coping with and overcoming such burdens? It may be psychological flexibility.
Psychological flexibility is a clinical term for one’s ability to “stay in the moment,” and I have found that the more psychological flexibility you have, the less you’re destined to suffer. One useful approach to activate psychological flexibility among people who may feel paralyzed by stress or trauma is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
ACT provides an effective framework for fostering the primary elements of psychological flexibility—mindfulness, acceptance and self-compassion—and has proven to be highly effective in helping individuals to process life’s difficulties. It is not, however, necessary to think of ACT as a therapy only. Employing the tenets of ACT to everyday life—and building one’s own psychological flexibility—can make a positive difference right now and in the future.
The first, and often most difficult, step is to accept or move toward the feelings you are experiencing. Science has made it clear that suppression or avoidance of painful thoughts, emotions and memories actually makes things worse. This does not mean learning to tolerate negative situations. Rather, the focus is on mindfulness. While being aware of what you are experiencing right now can be painful, research shows it can open the door to considering a new, more flexible way forward.
Another step in the process is letting go of the beliefs you’ve locked in—often about yourself. People tend to view themselves and their actions through a harsh, judgmental and critical lens. Instead, learn to speak to yourself like a compassionate friend, offering the care, support and compassion that allow you to let go of the past and consider your next step more openly.
The final, most important step: Identify your values. The very things that make your life worth living, your values are stronger than your plans and bigger than your goals. While your goal may be to earn a bachelor’s degree, the desire to be a lifelong learner or to make a contribution to the world is the underlying value that moves you forward and gives dignity to the steps you are taking to achieve it. Take some time to do an inventory of the different domains in your life—work, family, leisure—and define not just what matters most, but why.
Living a life centered around those values gives us courage, hope, meaning and, often, a flexible roadmap for where we should go from here.
The Breakdown: 3 Steps Toward Psychological Flexibility
1. Move toward and accept your feelings.
You may be able to avoid or ignore negative emotions like sadness, fear or anger, but “relief” is always temporary. Instead, embrace them—not by learning to tolerate them but by being aware of their existence and the reasons you are experiencing them. Mindfulness leads to acceptance and the ability to move on.
2. Let go of long-held beliefs.
Whether you think you are perfect or an irreparable failure, you’re wrong. Holding yourself to unrealistic standards isn’t just unfair, it can be detrimental to your psychological and physical health. Mistakes, errors and setbacks are inevitable, and recognizing that is key to overcoming them.
3. Identify your values.
Your life has purpose, and you get to decide what it is. What do you want out of life? What can’t you live without? Why? When you feel lost in pain, grief and disappointment, the answers to these questions can be the compass that redirects you where you want to go.
Victoria M. Follette is a professor of psychology, chair of the clinical Psy.D. program and director of clinical training. She has published extensively on the issues related to traumatic events and therapy for the long-term sequelae of trauma.
This story was featured in the winter 2020 edition of Florida Tech Magazine. Read the full issue here.