What Is Psychological Flexibility?

by Tim Gordon, MSW, RSW

Psychological flexibility represents the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) model of health—it’s the element we want to foster and grow in our clients while modelling it ourselves as mental health professionals.

Psychological flexibility is coming in full contact with painful experiences and with uniquely chosen values while consciously choosing to act and engage in a meaningful life.

Notice from this description that psychological flexibility does not prescribe one’s attempts to escape or avoid their most painful experiences but instead is an invitation to experience them with an aim to live a meaningful life. What we mean by psychological in the ACT model is all the private, inner experiences someone might have: thoughts, sensations, feelings, and memories.

With ACT, there is a way we can work with our pain where it does not exclusively govern our behavior. Adding flexibility to a repertoire of behavior is especially pertinent when someone is suffering or coming in direct contact with something painful, because people often narrow their lives in unproductive ways when faced with painful events. For example, a person with severe fears may create rigid rules around what is considered safe, reacting to feelings of fear when exposed to anything outside of these rules. Over time, that person may become limited by their rules or thoughts and feelings, never leaving their house or even a specific room in their house.

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This person’s behavioral repertoire is narrowed in an attempt to avoid, escape, or control their painful private experiences. They have trapped themselves in their own mind—their behavior governed by what they don’t want to feel. The psychological flexibility model assists that person to engage with their painful experiences and their values so that they can practice acceptance and choose a more flexible way to respond to their painful inner experiences.

Tim Gordon, MSW, RSW, is a social worker and peer reviewed ACT trainer in Canada who teaches ACT in the Clinical Behavioral Sciences program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

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