ACT 101: Psychological Flexibility

Has this ever happened to you? Psychological Flexibility Meme

  • You set a goal to eat more healthful foods, but you give in to cravings, repeatedly, then think, “I’m never going to get this under control. I feel like just giving up.”
  • You want to be more loving to the people you care about, but you catch yourself in the middle of an argument, waving your hands, saying hurtful things, again. Then, you mentally turn equally hurtful words towards yourself, “What is wrong with me?”
  • You decide you want to further your education, but just can’t seem to force yourself to sign up for that next course? You think, “It’s just too hard.  I’m not smart enough.”

You wonder if you’ll ever be able to be the person you want to be, or accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourself.  It’s like trying to get to the top of a steep hill.  You take a running start with such good intentions, and up you go for a while. Then you lose traction and slide back down, maybe sometimes even tumble and roll back to the bottom of the hill.  You get up, look around and see you’re in the same place you started.  You grit your teeth, muster your dogged determination and try again…with the same result.  You try again, and again. You’re disappointed and frustrated, at the situation and at yourself.  You just feel stuck, and furthermore you’ve had it with this exhausting, painful pattern and you’re ready to call it quits.

Don’t give up.  Give ACT a try!  ACT recognizes this stuck pattern of behavior as a normal human experience and it offers 6 Core Processes that, when practiced, help you get unstuck, and help you develop the ability to move forward in the direction of your chosen values, goals, and ways of behaving, even when stuff gets in the way.  This is known as developing “psychological flexibility.”

Below, is a very brief description of each the 6 Core Processes, and we’ll be visiting each in more depth in other blog posts.  But first, let’s take a closer look at what is really happening here.  Initially, there is the desire to move towards something you value (a healthier body, improved relationships, or higher education, etc.).  Next, unpleasant thoughts show up like, “What if I fail?” or “I’m not good enough,” and difficult emotions arise like uncertainty, fear or frustration when things don’t go as expected.  Then, you want to avoid those painful thoughts and feelings, so you’re tempted to quit, or maybe you do quit. And maybe even more painful thoughts show up, “I’m such a loser.”

Again, all of this is perfectly normal.  It even has a name; it’s called experiential avoidance.  But, it’s keeping us from being the person we really want to be.  I encourage you to watch this 3-minute video that explains it.

So, let’s take a very brief look at what makes a difference, the 6 Core Processes of Psychological Flexibility:Hexaflex with credit

  1. Values – Clarifying what really matters to us
  2. Committed Action – Taking clearly defined steps towards our values
  3. Mindfulness – Being in contact and fully engaged in our lives moment-by-moment
  4. Self as Context – Recognizing the enduring part of ourselves that observes our experiences throughout the many stages of our lives
  5. Defusion – Detaching, or unhooking, from our painful mental experiences (thoughts, memories, judgments, etc.) that arise when we’re moving towards our values
  6. Acceptance – Expanding our capacity to experience those difficult emotions that also show up

ACT is about building skills in each of the 6 processes.  For a short, yet very effective practice, I recommend this 3-minute breathing space exercise to begin the process of noticing your internal experiences (thoughts, emotions and sensations), and to experience mindfulness.  I invite you to share your experience by leaving a comment.

Let’s practice ACT together!

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