The Psychology of Flexibility
A few weeks ago I was doing a lot of reflecting on flexibility (well, I don’t want to dismiss the fact that I have been doing a lot of reflecting on A LOT of things lately . . . but this seemed a good place to return to my blog). So, what is flexibility? It seems like a good characteristic when it comes to everyday life and relationships, but is it good when it comes to values? One of my favorite quotes is: Be determined in your goals, but flexible in your methods. That sounds great in theory, but when are the times we should remain inflexible? Is that just stubbornness? And when did stubbornness get a bad rap? As you can see, this snowballed into a lot of questions, so I went to the research!
What is Psychological Flexibility?
I used to be dancer, and though I can no longer do the splits, that’s not the flexibility I’m talking about.
Psychological flexibility has recently been defined as “the ability to pursue valued life aims despite the presence of distress, [and] is a fundamental contributor to health.”
Basically, being flexible allows us to do the things we want to do, even if there are other stressors in our life. It can be as simple as this: A friend invites you out for coffee, but you are thinking about all the household chores that have been piling up. Flexibility is the ability to say ‘yes’ to your friend and do the chores in the evening or even the next day rather than stressing out about it all morning. Flexibility is also the ability to say ‘no’ when we need to stay home, practice some self care, and not stress about not accepting our friend’s invite. And even if we are a little stressed, we don’t completely shut down.
On a larger scale, flexibility is also the ability to see the gray area in things. As much as some may wish it, the world is not black and white. In many problems we face there is not a right answer and a wrong answer. Rather, there are infinite possibilities from which to choose. Flexibility is the ability to understand this. Another researcher stated it well: “Psychologically flexible individuals are willing to tolerate uncomfortable states if doing so facilitates meaningful goal pursuit.” Seems simple, right? It can actually be really difficult for some people to be flexible, especially when anxiety is present.
Study after study has shown that the ability to be flexible contributes to our emotional, mental, and even physical health. Individuals who are more flexible and adaptive in their thinking (which is actually measurable, believe it or not) tend to be more optimistic, more resilient, have better job performance, and have higher reports of all around well-being both at work and home. Those who are more inflexible report things such as chronic pain, higher rates of depression, anxiety, and workplace stress.
One study found that psychological flexibility was a significant factor in helping veterans with PTSD live a better quality of life. Another study found that PTSD symptoms tend to be less severe in those with a high degree of flexibility. Flexibility also predicted better treatment outcomes of those with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Similar studies found higher life satisfaction in those with severe and persistent illness who also who demonstrated flexibility.
Another study found that we tend to be less flexible as we grow older. Though kids can certainly thrive with expectations and schedules, the older we get, the more rigid our theoretical thoughts become. Think about these examples: adapting to change, experiencing new things, politics, technology, the best way to go about a problem; the older we get, the more ‘stuck in our ways’ we become.
A fascinating study looking across a multitude of other studies (with a total of over 58,000 participants) found that people in countries with less individualism (in other words, more community oriented) had individuals who were more flexible. This begs the conclusion: are those who live in community-oriented areas more flexible and thus have a higher quality of life? Is there individual benefit to doing things for the good of the community? (I would answer: it certainly seems so!)
Perhaps not a surprise for some, women tend to be more flexible than men. Some researchers hypothesize that this is because of women’s (societally imposed) multiple roles (homemaker, caregiver, worker), whereas there is still a social construct of men’s role(s) (breadwinner). Avoiding our feelings can also make us more inflexible, again, cue social gender norms: men aren’s ‘supposed’ to show their feelings, making them more inflexible. In terms of schedule, those with more flexible work models (like working from home) reported better work-life balance. This is beneficial for the individual in other areas of life, as well as for the businesses who practice logistical flexibility.
Flexibility can come from a variety of places: genetics, childhood experiences, culture, evolution; it’s a nature and nurture thing. It is also important to note that there is some privilege in flexibility. Because I have a supportive partner, I am able to be flexible with my schedule while still attending to my family. Interesting studies have shown that those with a lower socioeconomic status actually have to be flexible to meet their needs, so this privilege can look many different ways.
Real Life Takeaway
So, how do we work on increasing our flexibility and adaptability?
Stop avoiding. If something is uncomfortable, there is a reason for it. This doesn’t mean go base jumping if you’re afraid of heights, it means explore why you might be uncomfortable about things, either self-reflective or with friends and family, or even in therapy.
Continue to practice your emotional regulation skills: mindfulness, deep breathing, naming our feelings without judgement. Need more? Head to therapy.
Slow down, be less reactive. Another favorite quote of therapists: listen to understand, not to respond. Reactivity tends to be an adaptive behavior when we are faced with something uncomfortable. This is even more important as we get older.
Know your goals. Journal, create a list, make a vision board. When unfordable or faced with a difficult decision, take time to think about how it will contribute to your larger goals.
And remember: Be stubborn in your goals, and flexible in your methods!
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