A few years ago, I performed in a Christmas musical.
Thankfully, I got the part of the narrator – lots of lines to learn but no singing, because I sing like a cat with laryngitis. I was also hoping to get away without any dancing, because I dance like a dyspraxic hippo, but the director was adamant – all the cast had to participate in the closing number.
Rehearsals for the dance were somewhat embarrassing. There was me – middle-aged, sedentary, overweight and unfit – surrounded by a bunch of skinny, limber teenagers and twenty-somethings. The dance instructor would take us through the warm up and while I would be struggling to get my feet more than shoulders width apart or my fingers much past my knees, the teenage whippets would be doing the splits all the way to the ground, or bending forward with their palms on the floor. Even those who weren’t very good dancers made up for it by the fact that their body had to strength and flexibility to adapt to the moves they had to learn. My body was tight and unforgiving, and I had to work really hard to do what the flexible people did very simply.
The world is in constant motion. Every day brings new challenges as the swirling currents of our social and physical environments push and pull us in different directions. Our inner world swirls just as much, as our feelings and emotions ebb and flow, churn and whirl. The collision of the swirling oceans of our outer world and the turbulent air of our inner worlds can create rain, storms or even hurricanes of psychosocial distress. Even without the bad weather, the constantly changing social and emotional forces creates never-ending demands on our ability to cope, and the exigencies can be exhausting.
Just like those people who were physically more flexible were able to better cope with the demands of the dance number, those people who are emotionally more flexible are able to better cope with the demands of our inner and outer worlds.
Psychological flexibility is being able to adjust our short term feelings in service of our long term values. In the research, psychological flexibility actually refers to a number of dynamic processes that unfold over time, such as how a person adapts to fluctuating situational demands, reconfigures mental resources, shifts perspective, and balances competing desires, needs, and life domains.
In other words, psychologically flexibility involves travelling in the direction of your deepest values, but being in touch with the present moment so that adjustments can be made to keep you on track.
Being psychologically flexible is like turning south for a little while to compensate for the northerly breeze so you can keep sailing in the direction of your long term values.
In day to day life, being psychologically flexible means not holding too tightly to our feelings, emotions or thoughts which can change rapidly and which aren’t always reliably in service of our deeper values.
So how can we become more psychologically flexible so that we can enhance the joy that psychological flexibility encourages?
It starts with knowing what your values are, and moving towards them.
We also need to work on acceptance, allowing our feelings and emotions, as strong and as distressing as they are at times, to ebb and flow as they do without rigidly fighting against them or trying to suppress them.
In order to build our capacity to cope with changing situational demands, we also need to “stretch” our mental “muscles” like I needed to stretch my physical muscles to be able to dance better. To become more mentally limber,
1. Learn something new every day, even if it’s something small
2. Do something differently, even if it’s a small change, but don’t always stick to the same routine
3. Do different things, things that you may not have done before. Again, doesn’t have to be much, but try a different coffee order, or a new meal at a restaurant. Listen to some new music.
4. Challenge yourself. Just a little bit every day. It’s ok to be a little bit mentally uncomfortable. Stretching is good for you!
As you continue to grow more psychological flexible, you will open yourself to new and greater experiences of joy.