How Flexibility in Thought and Focus Can Curb Your Anger
Your flexibility in attention determines how you respond to your anger.
Posted Jan 31, 2020
You’re driving to work, enjoying your favorite tunes or an audiobook, perhaps running a few minutes late. The traffic is stop-and-go when you are suddenly jolted by a car behind you careening into yours. Suppose you’re not hurt, but a little shaken up. How do you react?
Understandably, this accident will likely cause you to experience a variety of thoughts and feelings. But would you be able to pause to assess the situation and identify what steps you need to take to address the mishap? Or might you instead bolt out of your car, energized by escalating anger, look at the damage, and quickly move to either verbally or physically attack the driver who caused it?
By being able to pause and respond, rather than react, you might best be described as strong in “psychological flexibility.” Your pause affords you the time and psychological openness to assess both how you feel and the situation and to brainstorm regarding what is in your best interests. By contrast, your quickness to be reactive in your feelings, thoughts, and actions would evidence “psychological inflexibility.” Such impulsive reactivity relies more on knee-jerk habits that are emotionally fueled than on the engagement of your more rational brain.
The Components of Psychological Flexibility
“Psychological flexibility” is a concept that has been emphasized and studied throughout the history of psychology. It is foundational in the practice of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and defined by Stephen Hayes 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” (Hayes et al., 2013).
As such, psychological flexibility entails the capacity to flexibly adapt to the demands of a situation, freedom to evoke and focus our mental resources, quickly shift perspective, and constructively prioritize from competing desires or demands.
Specifically, the key components of psychological flexibility identified by ACT include:
1. Being present.
This consists of directing attention to the present moment, neither the future nor the past. It involves attending to our internal experiences as well as the details of what is external to us. In the example provided, being present to our internal landscape involves noticing our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations during the situation.
It entails, for example, recognizing any knee-jerk conclusions we are making about the other driver or ourselves. We might recognize anxiety as our thoughts shift from the present, and we anticipate our supervisor’s reactions to being late. Or we might only experience anger. We might recognize the thought that we have once again been victimized. Or our primary thoughts might focus instead on the time inconvenience and cost associated with repairing your car.
When being present to the body, we might notice that we are breathing heavily, that we have a rapid heart rate and a slight pain in the neck. And we might recognize a variety of feelings that might include anger, frustration, anxiety, guilt, disappointment, or even shame.
However, being present entails attending to the task at hand rather than to the reactive internal editorializing associated or to the details of what is happening. This might include observing the damage, noticing if either of us is hurt, being alert to the traffic around us in order to maintain our safety.
2. Acceptance—allowing it to be just as it is.
This involves being able to be present with our experience—our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. Cultivating acceptance allows us to honor and witnesses our feelings, thoughts, and sensations rather than avoid them by denial, minimization, or suppression.
Acceptance is non-judgmental. Being involved in the described accident may understandably lead to a range of feelings, including anxiety, frustration, powerless, and anger—and even guilt or shame. Judging such feelings only intensifies our suffering that, in turn, might fuel anger with the other driver or with ourselves.
Acceptance does not mean we are passive. It does not entail agreement with our thoughts or feelings. Rather, it encompasses just noting them. Acceptance is strengthened by self-compassion that recognizes our humanity: that we are not alone and that we have flaws and make mistakes. Acceptance requires the courage to just sit with these reactions rather than impulsively react to them.
3. Unhooking from difficult thoughts and feelings.
This capacity rests on our being present and accepting. It allows us to experience thoughts, feelings, and sensations without having to act on them. So, for example, we might have the knee-jerk thought to blame and shame the other driver, but instead, realize we don’t have to. We might experience anger and fear but aren’t compelled to react to them. We may be reminded of previous accidents, but have the capacity to redirect our attention to the present accident and the unique details surrounding it.
Unhooking requires our awareness of any internal script we are living by—how we have defined ourselves or the world based on past experiences. Being involved in an accident may, for example, conjure up feelings of shame that are grounded in a history of feeling shame for making mistakes.
For some of us, such an accident may challenge our script that fuels rigid expectations of perfectionism. Or it might evoke our rigid belief that the world is always dangerous, and we are powerless when it comes to being safe. Certain thoughts may be triggered by the make of the car or the age, race, or ethnicity of the other driver.
Based on our script, we may find ourselves more forgiving of a senior who apologizes than a teenager who seems flippant in his tone. And certainly, we might have an entirely different set of thoughts and feelings if the driver steps out of his car and suddenly appears by our side, yelling profanities and blaming us for the accident.
All of these knee-jerk observations are rooted in the past, but can powerfully impact how we react in the present. However, being flexible depends on our capacity to recognize them and not be held hostage by them. It calls for recognizing and then detaching from them rather than accepting them as true. And it entails creating the emotional space to identify a more constructive response.
Unhooking from these thoughts and feelings provides us the freedom to choose how to respond instead. It allows us to be present and notice, for example, that we require medical attention. Unhooking our thoughts and feelings associated with the past and present creates space for the awareness that we may be safer by moving to the shoulder of the road, that we should call the police, and that we need to exchange insurance information.
4. Noticing ourselves as an observer.
In every aspect of life, we have the capacity to be an “experiencer” and an observer of that experience. Through the eyes of our observing self, we may “watch” the unfolding of our experiences in the present situation. I might feel anger and observe that feeling. I might experience the urge to denigrate someone verbally, and I might simply observe that urge.
Psychological flexibility requires that we become increasingly aware of our choice to be an observer rather than just an experiencer. This capacity helps us to create the pause we need to determine how or if to respond to our experience.
Noticing ourselves as an observer helps us to observe what we are experiencing without totally “inhabiting” or being enveloped by it. Our “observing self” can step back and notice our internal experiences—including our thoughts, feelings, and sensations—as simply information. Such noticing reminds us that we are not our thoughts or emotions, that these are fleeting experiences that come and go.
I like to compare such experiences to those signs along the highway that provide messages in LED lights. Someone programs those messages to provide information about the traffic. In a similar manner, our past informs and supports how our minds work. It informs our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.
Without the capacity to pause and observe our experiences, we are captive to these habits, unable to flexibly adapt to the current challenges we might be facing. It is in this capacity that we can experience full choice in deciding who we are and who we wish to be.
5. Remembering our values and living by them.
This entails the capacity to draw on our wisdom in order to look at the bigger picture while living in the present. For example, we may identify with being authentic and compassionate in our relationships with others and ourselves. We may value seeing our self as a problem solver. We may value cultivating psychological flexibility and the skills associated with it.
As such, even when confronted by an auto accident, demonstrating psychological flexibility entails remembering—in the moment—that these are the values we wish to honor. And in each moment of that experience, we can be open to the opportunity to behave in ways that are consistent with our values. And it is in such moments that we can evoke our wisdom to direct our behavior in accordance with what is in our best interests.
In every moment of our lives, we are confronted with this same choice—with and without full awareness. Being mindful of it allows us to identify our values and, in doing so, consciously create our own life script. In the process, we define ourselves rather than relying on those scripts mindlessly internalized through habit or on how others wish to define us.
Cultivating Psychological Flexibility With Regard to Anger
Cultivating psychological flexibility is key to resilience in dealing with life’s challenges. It is essential for living a life with greater choice and fulfillment. Such flexibility helps reduce our propensity to experience anger and broadens our choices in determining how to respond when it does arise.
In a general way, almost every self-help book regarding anger reflects attention toward increasing psychological flexibility. Each provides information to gain self-awareness in order to expand our flexibility to make more conscious choices in our lives. And many forms of psychotherapy enhance it in a general way.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses recognizing and challenging our distortions of thinking that foster anger. By contrast, ACT, Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), and practices in mindfulness offer highly specific and well-defined skills for cultivating the enhanced capacity to observe our anger, be compassionate toward it, and consciously choose how to respond rather than react to it.
As I’ve emphasized in almost any post I’ve written regarding this highly charged and complex emotion, the journey toward creating change takes time, commitment, and patience. Cultivating psychological flexibility is a process that requires nurturing attention, a focus on aspiring to enhance such skills, and the compassion to continue doing so even when we fail to live up to our aspirations.
Psychological flexibility also helps us to view such failures as an inherent part of learning and as an ongoing reminder of our humanity. And certainly, it provides us with the capacity to respond more effectively to all of life’s challenges beyond the unfortunate experience of an accident on the highway.
Hayes, S., Levin, M., et. al. (2013) Acceptance and commitment therapy and contextual behavioral science: Examining the progress of a distinctive model of behavioral and cognitive therapy. Behav Ther., June, 44(2) 180-198,