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Psychological Flexibility: A Core Mental Health Asset

Developing better psychological flexibility is a basic goal of therapy.

In his 1966 book The Psychology of Science, the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote:

"I remember seeing an elaborate and complicated automatic washing machine for automobiles that did a beautiful job of washing them. But it could do only that, and everything else that got into its clutches was treated as if it were an automobile to be washed. I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” (p.15).

Image by Gerd Altmann for Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann for Pixabay

Maslow was referring to his attempt to find new ways to research the questions that interested him, rather than continue to use old, well known but ill-fitting approaches or give up entirely. Yet the quote has over time come to illustrate a common cognitive bias, sometimes referred to as “the law of the hammer,” which involves over-reliance on a familiar tool. It also illustrates a common, yet often overlooked, mental health problem: the failure of psychological flexibility.

It turns out that, just as anatomical flexibility and limberness tend to denote physical health, psychological flexibility is an important mark of mental health, and developing it is an important goal of therapy. At the core, the notion of psychological flexibility pertains to one’s mental agility and adaptability. It denotes, in the words of psychologist (and fellow PT blogger) Todd Kashdan, the ability to, "recognize and adapt to various situational demands; shift mindsets or behavioral repertoires when these strategies compromise personal or social functioning; maintain balance among important life domains; and be aware, open, and committed to behaviors that are congruent with deeply held values." (p.865)

The notion of psychological flexibility as a mark of mental health has a long history in psychology, albeit in different guises, and multiple theorists and practitioners over the years have advanced their own versions of it.

The Austrian-born psychologist Alfred AdIer (1870-1937), a contemporary of Freud, argued that in every person the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind work in harmony toward a future "goal." The goal, emerging vaguely during childhood, involves one’s self-constructed path for overcoming inferiority. In mentally healthy individuals, the goal involves a realistic pursuit of socially useful ends, achieving significance, and overcoming personal difficulties. Mental disorders emerge when the goal is unrealistic and overly selfish. Borrowing from the philosopher Hans Vaihinger, Adler called this goal the "fictional finalism"—fictional insomuch as the goal is a self-ideal, a subjective experience rather than objective reality. This mostly unconscious fictional finalism (also known as a "guiding fiction") directs all strivings. Thus, part of Adlerian therapy involves an attempt to understand a person’s goal as embodied in their guiding fiction, in order to understand the logic underlying their behavior.

According to Adler, one’s goal remains more or less consistent over time, yet the specific ways by which the goal is understood and pursued can change, as people apply their "creative self" (Adler’s term for "free will") to the task. This flexibility in revising our narratives and adjusting to the dynamic nature of life experience is what separates healthy from unhealthy individuals; an inflexible fictional finalism is maladaptive, and the hallmark of neurosis.

German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1885-1952) had her own take on the idea of psychological flexibility. Horney believed that neurosis resulted from anxiety caused by interpersonal relationships, particularly parent-child relations. Horney maintained that we are all faced with the need to solve "the problem of the other" and the anxiety that attends it. In her 1942 book Self-Analysis (p.51-56), Horney described the 10 basic “neurotic needs,” rigidly excessive drives that serve to defend against anxiety:

  1. The Need for Affection and Approval: An abiding desire to be liked by all, to please and appease, and to avoid rejection and hostility from others.
  2. The Need for a Partner Who Will Take Over One’s Life: An extreme fear of abandonment leading to outsize expectations of one’s love object.
  3. The Need to Restrict One’s Life Within Narrow Borders: A fear of ambition, of striving, of being noticed.
  4. The Need for Power: Seeking power for its own sake and despising weakness.
  5. The Need to Exploit Others: Seeing others as objects to be used and exploited to achieve one’s desired objectives, such as power, money, or sex.
  6. The Need for Prestige: Valuing oneself by the amount of acclaim and public recognition one has achieved and fearing public embarrassment and loss of status.
  7. The Need for Personal Admiration: A need to be admired emerging from one’s narcissistic, exaggerated sense of self, rather than for one’s actual abilities.
  8. The Need for Personal Achievement: An insatiable need to achieve more and more, emerging from insecurity.
  9. The Need for Self-Sufficiency and Independence: Distancing from others in order to avoid dependency or "being tied down."
  10. The Need for Perfection and Unassailability: A need for infallibility, involving a constant effort to identify and correct one’s perceived flaws.

Horney later concluded that these neurotic needs can be usefully reduced to three basic strategies of dealing with others: moving toward, away, or against them. In other words, we may choose to solve the problem of the other by either assuaging and pleasing, evading and avoiding, or confronting and dominating them.

Healthy individuals can toggle flexibly between these strategies, attuned to the demands of the situation and other contextual features. Unhealthy individuals are stuck in one gear; in other words, they tend to overuse one of these strategies, generating conflict and confusion.

German-born theorist and psychotherapist Fritz Perls (1893-1970), in developing his own unique therapy approach known as Gestalt, also honed in on the concept of flexibility as essential for mental health. According to Gestalt theory, therapy happens at the contact boundary between the client and their environment (in particular, the therapist). "Contact" refers to one’s ability to be in touch with the living moment of their here-and-now experience. According to Gestalt theory, the ability to maintain contact, to experience the present fully, is essential to one’s mental health.

To enable contact, the boundary between self and other needs to be permeable enough to allow for reciprocal exchanges, yet firm enough to maintain the individual’s coherence and autonomy. A good metaphor for this idea is the human skin: a self-healing, flexible, breathing boundary that both separates us from and connects us to others. Gestalt theory holds that unclear, lost, or impermeable boundaries create disturbances of contact, and with that, disturbances in living.

Three common ‘"boundary disturbances" that may hinder full healthy contact are called "confluence," "isolation," and "introjection." Confluence (or fusion) involves a loss of distinction between self and other. Isolation, on the other hand, happens when the boundary becomes so impermeable that it disallows any connectedness. Introjection refers to "swallowing" outside influences whole, without proper vetting and discretion.

Good, flexible boundaries allow for alternation between connecting and separating and facilitate a vibrant exchange and assimilation of ideas and influences, thus enabling learning, growth, and health.

The American psychiatrist Aaron Beck (1921-present), a founder of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), has also alluded to the problem of inflexibility through his discussion of "cognitive distortions." Beck, who worked chiefly with depressed patients, noticed that they often made allusions to troubling, catastrophic, and negative thoughts. Over time, he came to believe that such negative, irrational, exaggerated, rigid, and biased thoughts (i.e. cognitive distortions) are at the root of depression. The idea of flexibility shows itself in the CBT tradition particularly as pertains to the common cognitive distortion known as "all or nothing" thinking (a.k.a. "black or white" thinking).

People who’ve developed this thought habit are destined to misrepresent reality, since real life is more often than not nuanced and exists on a continuum. People who take a "black or white" view of the world also enter a psychological trap, since those who only accept perfection as success are doomed to feel like perpetual failures. In CBT, one goal is to shift from "switch" thinking (all or nothing) to a more flexible "dial" approach, allowing for nuance and gray areas. Clients are trained to observe their cognitions, weigh evidence for and against a given thought, compare it to alternative ones, and pick the thought that is most likely to be accurate, rather than the thought that showed up first, or the one that "shouts the loudest."

The idea of psychological flexibility has found its latest incarnation in the contemporary Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach, developed by the American psychologist Steven Hayes (1948-present). ACT involves an attempt to teach individuals to view and accept their internal experience stoically while keeping their behavior aligned with their core values and long term goals. Psychological flexibility in the ACT framework was defined by Hayes and colleagues as, “being able to contact the moment as a conscious human being more fully as it is, not as what it says it is, and based on what the situation affords, persisting or changing in behavior in the service of chosen values.” (p.8).

In other words, psychological flexibility in the ACT framework pertains mainly to the person’s commerce with the world, and is viewed as a person’s ability to adapt to dynamic situational demands, effectively summon and direct their mental resources, shift perspective with agility, and balance competing desires and demands. Thus, psychological flexibility allows the person to calibrate their responses to the here-and-now situational demands; to focus their attention and direct their energy effectively, to be able to take the long term perspective even in the midst of emotional turmoil, and behave in ways that honor their core values and facilitate the attainment of their meaningful goals.

At the end of the day, it is often the case that when multiple, creative, independent thinkers converge at different times and by different means on a similar conclusion, the odds are high that the conclusion reflects a truth. The history of psychology—and, by now, the accumulating empirical evidence—suggest that the importance of psychological flexibility for mental health is one such truth.

LinkedIn Image Credit: KlingSup/Shutterstock

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