The late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who founded ashtanga yoga, famously said, “Body not stiff. Mind stiff.”
I’ve been practicing ashtanga for nearly six years and I never really understood or agreed with that statement until I started working with clinical psychology material that claimed psychological inflexibility was at the heart of many mental health issues.
We definitely should aim to become more psychologically flexible. We should have as wide a repertoire of behaviors available to us as possible, as often as possible, even when difficult thoughts or feelings are present. Our thoughts and feelings should not be the sole drivers of our behavior. They also should not significantly limit us from functioning properly when they show up.
Psychological flexibility is, according to tons of research, a “fundamental aspect of health.” Unlike rigidity, which typically only leaves room for behaviors that focus on avoiding difficult feelings or chasing pleasant ones, psychological flexibility creates space for a broader set of behaviors that open doors and make a meaningful life possible.
If our minds are flexible, our thoughts and feelings don’t dictate our behavior and therefore, they don’t run our lives. We become more empowered to behave in ways that serve our highest values, instead of being passive and letting our emotions take the wheel. When we are flexible, we have more choices. More options. And more freedom.
So how do we accomplish psychological flexibility?
According to an approach called acceptance and commitment therapy, there are six things we can focus on.
Acceptance does not mean resigning ourselves to shitty circumstances, or allowing unhealthy circumstances to exist unchecked.
Acceptance means being open and willing to feel all the things human beings feel. That includes both pleasure and pain. The next time you wake up and feel lonely or depressed, notice if you try to immediately do something to dim it, quell it, or push the pain away. If so, you can try instead to practice acceptance.
When pain shows up, use it as an opportunity to challenge yourself. Do exactly nothing about it. Let it pass. The more times you do this, the more you will boost your flexibility, to be with whatever shows up.
Present moment awareness, or mindfulness.
Thoughts about the past and future are in constant competition for our attention. But with mindfulness, we bring ourselves back to the present rather than latching on to the runaway train of continuous thoughts. This is hard to do. Extremely hard to do. Exhausting, even. It’s like yoga. Hard, and often boring. But over time, it builds strength and flexibility.
When we’re not able to bring our attention back to the present moment, we get fixated on the stuff in our minds. And when we latch on to thoughts that are self-criticizing, negatively-oriented, or fearful, our behavior ends up reflecting those thoughts. And that’s not what we want.
Viewing the self as context, not content.
If you’ve ever done any mindfulness practice the first thing you learn is that you are the observer of your thoughts and feelings; you are not the thoughts and feelings themselves. As long as you make an effort to remember this fundamental truth, you have a way out of the painful experience of identifying with every difficult thought or feeling that goes through your head.
When we over-identify with our thoughts and feelings, they run our lives. I feel stupid. So I must be stupid, right? No use applying to graduate school, I’ll never get in. Cuz I’m stupid.
Here, you can see how believing the feeling of being stupid dictated my behavior. I didn’t apply to graduate school because my mind generated a thought that I was stupid. If I were more psychologically flexible, I’d notice the thought, and remember how little it has to do with who I truly am. I might even decide to challenge it, and apply to grad school anyway.
Another thing we can do to be more psychologically flexible is to change how we relate to our thoughts. Once we’ve come to terms with the fact that they’re not going to change just because we don’t like them, we can learn to function properly even in their presence.
We do this, partly, by creating some distance from them. We defuse from them. When you’re trying to create distance from your thoughts it really helps to employ acceptance and mindfulness. And to remind yourself that you are simply the vessel within which the thoughts are occurring, and not the the thoughts themselves.
So… Why do all this? Aside from the research that proves psychological flexibility will make you healthier and happier, the point of being flexible is to live according to what matters most to you, NOT according to what’s going on in your mind at any given moment.
Just like the body, which stays stiff with limited range of motion if not stretched and exercised, a rigid mind will limit the way you move through life.
When we’re not able to create distance from our uncomfortable feelings, we’re much more likely to do whatever it takes to avoid them. But when we’re inflexibly fixated on avoiding discomfort, it makes it pretty impossible to pursue the things that really matter. Especially because so often we experience fear, anxiety, and other similarly uncomfortable sensations around the people, situations, and things that mean the most to us.
So identify your values, and use them as compass when things get dark internally. I feel stupid. But getting clinical training so I can help people is important to me. I’m going to go ahead and apply to graduate school anyway, even though I’m afraid I won’t get in.
Using your values as a compass will help you to be more psychologically flexible. You’ll understand that difficult thoughts and feelings will emerge throughout life. You’ll observe and gently examine them when they do. You’ll remind yourself that you are not them and they are not you. You’ll distance yourself from them. You’ll hold in mind what matters, and commit to those things, even when frightening or painful thoughts are there.
Whereas an unchecked inflexible mind may limit you to doing whatever will expose you to the least discomfort, psychological flexibility will help you pursue your highest values, even with discomfort in tow. If you can allow your mind to do it’s thing when it needs to without letting it throw you off track, you get to stay moving toward the things that truly matter. And that’s the goal.