Psychological Flexibility and ACT

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

Chazal teach us (Taanis 20a) that a person should be as flexible as a reed that when strong winds blow the reed sways back and forth until the winds subside and the reed remains standing. Flexibility can be applied to many areas of our lives, and more specifically the trait of psychological flexibility can often be the key to mental wellness. Indeed, there is a treatment modality for depression and anxiety that has psychological flexibility as its core intervention. We are referring to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT.

The definition of psychological flexibility according to this modality is “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being, and to either change or persist when doing so serves valued ends”. That might sound like psycho-babble, so let us put it in simpler terms. In life, we are often challenged with thoughts and feelings that can be intrusive or disturbing. Rather than focusing on what is important and valuable in our lives, we get caught up in trying to control our thoughts and feelings. This is usually ineffective and unnecessary and very often significantly compromises our mental wellness. Psychological flexibility is, therefore, the ability to not be flustered by uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and instead focus your energy on what is meaningful to you and is consistent with your values.

Achieving psychological flexibility is very different from achieving happiness. It is our “pursuit of happiness” (to quote Thomas Jefferson) that is often the source of our depression and misery. In order to attain happiness, we fall into the trap of trying to control those thoughts and feelings that we think are compromising our happiness. The result? More unhappiness. When we instead focus on flexibility, we are keeping our eyes on the ball and trying to live our lives according to our values rather than concerning ourselves with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. 

ACT recognizes six core processes that are the foundation for psychological flexibility.

Acceptance – We often struggle and expend energy in controlling our circumstances. This is analogous to being caught in quicksand that the more you struggle, the more you become entrapped. Accept your situation and embrace it.

Defusion – We often view our thoughts as part of ourselves. Hence, when those thoughts are unpleasant or intrusive, we try to excise them from our system. When we defuse ourselves from our thoughts, we reach the understanding that we are not our thoughts. With defusion, we can let those thoughts drift by like gray clouds passing by in the wind.

Being Present – We spend so much of our cognitive energy on the past or the future. The past cannot be changed, and the future cannot be predicted. The only moment that we are ever living is the present moment. Learning how to be in contact with the present allows us to enrich ourselves with all that life has to offer. This is also known as mindfulness.

Self as Context – We often try to define ourselves by attaching labels to ourselves. If you have high self-esteem, you will have positive labels for yourself, such as special, smart, or kind. The problem is that if you need to attach a label, then our minds can switch those labels to negative ones. When we are the context of our experience, then we are simply observing ourselves without the need to attach any labels. Now, you don’t need to say to yourself, “I am special,” you can simply say, “I am.” 

Values – If you are not fully in touch with what really matters to you, then you may spend your life dedicating yourself to goals and objectives that do not enrich your life or give it any meaning. Acceptance, defusion, and being present are not an end unto themselves. They free you to live according to your values. But, you first need to know what those values are.

Committed Action – Defining the actions and goals that one needs to focus on in order to live according to one’s values is the final step in psychological flexibility. If you accept your circumstances, disconnect yourself from counterproductive thought and feelings, live in the present moment, and have clearly defined values, then the door is open for a rich and meaningful life as you engage in committed action. You will face life’s challenges with flexibility that allows you to remain on track.

We have tried in this article to present you a very brief overview of a popular intervention that many clinicians utilize in treatment and to broaden our perspective on our relationship to ourselves and our emotions. Whether or not you ever study ACT or experience it in therapy, it is worthwhile to contemplate the concept of psychological flexibility and how you can you apply it to your life.

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