Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Psychological flexibility helps us navigate life more fluidly and with less unnecessary suffering (there's enough of that without us adding to it.) These tips help you practice it.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Be Curious About Body Sensations
For some people, sensations in their body trigger anxiety, which then can also trigger an unpleasant reaction. A big part of psychological flexibility is learning to be openly curious and accepting of sensations in our body, including anxiety. Sometimes, if we try to push away sensations in our body--something we just don't have total control over--we end up creating even more of an internal struggle. We can tire ourselves out and end up feeling miserable.
Calmly turn your attention to sensations in your body.
Try to be curious about what you are noticing as if you were looking at an interesting work of art.
Get creative. Try to identify any temperatures, colors, or textures associated with those feelings.
Notice your reactions to exploring sensations in your body with curiosity.
If you're struggling, notice that too and be curious about the feeling of struggling.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Struggle With Something You Can't Change
Psychological flexibility includes being able to accept things that we can't change in our lives. When we can't accept certain things, we expend a lot of energy just fighting with facts. All of this energy wasted could be used to engage in something more meaningful. In addition, when we are struggling with something that can't change, our attention is on an unmovable object rather than on something we care about. All of that can get in the way of present moment experiences.
Pick out something in the room that can't really be changed, like how tall the ceiling is.
Decide to really struggle with this aspect of the room. Convince yourself that the height of the ceiling is completely intolerable and that life can't go on until the ceilings are a different height.
Notice what this feels like in your whole experience including your body.
Now let yourself accept the height of the ceilings. Notice that even if the ceiling heights are what you want them to be, that you can stop struggling with the ceiling heights.
Notice how that shift toward acceptance affects how you feel in the moment including in your body
Now Identify some aspect of your life that you can't change, something you've also been struggling with, what would it be like to end this internal struggle?
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Watch Your Thoughts
One aspect of psychological flexibility involves taking our thoughts less literally. One way to do that is to just watch your thoughts without judgment.
Settle your body and sit comfortable.
Open up to just watching your thoughts as they arise.
If any judgments come up, notice that they are also just thoughts.
Allow yourself to notice each thought as it arises and then also acknowledge that each one is just a thought.
When you are finished, spend some time thinking about what a thought actually is and how much power we give to thoughts versus how much power is actually within a thought.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: What do you really care about?
When we are in a space to choose what we do next, it's important to know what we really care about. This aspect of psychological flexibility keeps us open to other options, even ones we've never tried before.
Open up a new note on your phone or get out a piece of paper.
Make a list of times this week when you've felt particularly hurt. Really open up to those feelings.
Look deeply at what that pain was about? What is it that you care about that made those moments feel so painful?
Reflect on the possibility that where we feel the most pain is also where we care the most.
Make a fresh list of the things you really care about that shows up when you suffer.
Reflect on how you can connect with what you care about, not just when you're suffering, but in your day-to-day life.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Notice the Noticer
This psychological flexibility tip fits best in the "self" category. All of us develop an identity over time. These identity constructs help us to navigate life easier. However, when our identification with parts of ourselves or our past becomes too rigid, we can really limit our options. For example, someone who identifies with the statement, "I'm a shy person," might not allow themselves to do things they would enjoy or find meaningful because all sorts of rules are triggered about what "shy people" can and can't do. When we work on psychological flexibility in the self category, we are trying to loosen these identifications and see ourselves more as the experiencer of our lives. In this practice, the "experiencer" and the "noticer" are referencing the same thing.
Sit comfortably and relax your body.
Allow your consciousness to notice your thoughts and feelings.
Pay attention to anything that comes up without judgment. Just notice.
Now notice what part of you is doing the noticing. How would you describe this part of yourself.
Recognize that this aspect of pure awareness is the part of us that has been with us throughout our lives and will accompany us throughout. This part of ourselves is more durable that our identity constructs such as our profession, roles, or interests.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Do The Same Thing With Different Values
How we do things is what values are all about. For example, when we are goal-oriented, we just care about obtaining some result. It might be making a million dollars. However, there's a lot of ways to make a million dollars. We can write a successful book, sell real estate, create a drug empire or a murder-for-hire service. The goal might be obtained in all those scenarios, but what values we bring to the process will likely be very different.
Find an object nearby that you can hold in your hand.
Hole the object with a neutral feeling and notice that.
Now hold the object hatefully. Really try to experience hate for the object.
Now hold the object lovingly. Let yourself fill with love and engage with the object.
What do you notice about how each experience felt?
Notice that the action that you performed was identical--holding the same object--but what value you connected with was very different. That had a big impact on the quality of the experience.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Is This Thought Helpful?
Before we become psychologically more flexible, we tend to listen to our thoughts in a way that considers each thought very important. When we engage with thoughts this way, we might feel like we are overwhelmed. If we believe that our thoughts are powerful and important, our very minds can get in the way of life. To be psychologically flexible, means to not give thoughts so much power. To just see thoughts as thoughts and nothing more, gives us more space in our heads and lives. Once we do this, we can become pragmatic with our thoughts. One quick way of doing this in any situation is to notice our thoughts and then ask, "Are these thoughts helpful to me right now?"
Take a few deep breaths and sit comfortably to the best of your ability.
Start noticing thoughts come up.
Ask yourself, "Are these thoughts helpful to be right now?"
What do you notice after asking that question?
Did your relationship to the thoughts change?
Practice this later in the day when not doing this exercise and reflect again.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Zones of Awareness
The present moment is the only place we can truly exist. This psychological flexibility tip has us practice getting in touch with the present moment by exploring zones of awareness. The first zone of awareness is in our bodies. Here we find bodily sensations like muscle tension, the air on our skin, and so on. The second zone of awareness is the outside world. Here we find shapes and colors of things in the environment, smells of food, and so on. The third zone of awareness is where our thoughts and feelings interact with the world. Here we notice individual thoughts, reactions to things, our feelings, and so on. There's a fourth zone of awareness that relates to how we are relating to others in the present moment. This is where we find ways of being in relationship to others, relational patterns, and so on.
Sit comfortably somewhere and relax your body.
Put your attention on the first zone and notice everything you can. Pay attention to what you feel in your body. If your mind wanders just gently bring it back to the first zone. Do this for about one minute.
Now, put your attention on the second zone and notice everything you can. What shapes and colors are present? Do this for also about 60 seconds.
Now, guide your attention to the third zone and notice everything you can. What thoughts and feels do you notice as your body and mind interact with the environment?
Finally, expand your awareness to include all three zones and let your attention fill every zone. What do you notice about how alive you feel and how present you are now versus prior to this exercise?
Extra credit: Do this exercise with someone else and include the fourth zone of awareness.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Do Something You Can''t Do
Sometimes we think about doing something that we care about, but our thoughts get in the way. We listen so much to the voice in our heads that we decide we actually can't do that thing we want to do. In this psychological flexibility tip, we practice doing something we tell ourselves we can't do.
Think about a task that you could do right now. This might be standing up, walking across the room, or drinking a glass of water.
Tell yourself with as much conviction as possible that you can't actually do the thing you're thinking of.
Repeat the phrase in your head. For example, say "I can't get up and get a glass of water. I will fail at getting a glass of water. It's impossible for me to get a glass of water."
While repeating this, actually do the task you identified such as going and pouring a glass of water.
After completing the task, reflect on this experience, paying particular attention to whether or not there might be times that you could actually do something even if your internal thoughts are repeatedly telling you that you can't or telling you that it would be too awful or overwhelming to do.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: How Much Space Can You Make?
Before we learn to be more psychologically flexible, unwanted thoughts and feelings can take up 100% of the space inside of us. This is way too much and much more than necessary. We have so much space inside of us. In addition to feeling painful emotions and experiencing unwanted thoughts, we can make room for curiosity, wonder, and even just space. To do this, we need to learn to grow our awareness and learn to manipulate our attention. Attention is like a magnifying lens: whatever our attention is on gets bigger. In this psychological flexibility tip, we will learn to shift our attention from only being on the painful emotions and thoughts to also include our own curiosity and wonder.
Sit somewhere quiet and turn your attention inward.
Identify whatever you are currently feeling. It doesn't matter if it's sadness, anger, boredom, disgust, or any other feeling, put your attention on this feeling.
Some people have difficulty feeling their feelings. If you are having difficulty identifying a feeling, just put your attention on that.
Now, expand your attention to also include curiosity about the feeling. Be actively curious about what these sensations feel like. Feel free to get creative and think about your feelings in terms of colors or temperatures.
Did this create anymore space inside of you?
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Commit to a Small Change
We've all been there--sick and tired of how things are going and we rally enough mental energy to make a change. While this is great, many times we try to hit it out of the ballpark in one swing. Instead of gaining momentum, we might become demoralized if instead of a home run, we don't even make it to first base. What works better for most people is to make a small change and make it stick for a longer period of time.
Identify some part of your life you want to make changes in.
Now imagine the smallest change you can make to start moving your life in that direction.
For example, if it's losing weight, the smallest change might be drinking a glass of water with meals instead of drinks with calories.
Keep track of whether or not you did the thing you wanted to do each day.
If you don't do what you wanted to on any given day, don't get discouraged. Recommit and get back on track tomorrow.
Stick with one thing for at least a month before making another change.
Psychological Flexibility Tip: Recognize the Persona
Carl Jung talked about our persona, the part of us that we create to interact with society and others that masks deeper parts of ourselves. There's nothing wrong with having a persona, it's necessary for navigating human interactions. However, we have to be able to be aware of what is our persona and what isn't.
The next time you are going to go out for errands, prepare yourself to pay attention to your persona.
Notice when you make nonverbal communication with your face when interacting with strangers.
Notice any internal thoughts that are happening that are hidden from the outside world.
Pay close attention to how you creatively project expressions and words into public spaces.
Notice the part of you that is hidden from view that can watch all of this unfolding.