Psychological flexibility

Embracing change for a meaningful life

What is psychological flexibility?

Psychological flexibility is a powerful concept rooted in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) that empowers individuals to adaptively respond to life’s challenges while staying true to their values. It involves being present, accepting uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, and taking committed action. Through this page, we explore the characteristics to look out for, the core processes of psychological flexibility, its benefits and how ACT therapists can help with appropriate strategies.

What does it mean to be psychologically inflexible?

Psychological inflexibility or rigidity refers to maladaptive pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving that hinders personal growth, well-being, and the ability to effectively respond to life’s challenges. Individuals who are psychologically inflexible are often stuck in unhelpful patterns and struggle to adapt to changing circumstances. Here are some key characteristics of psychological inflexibility:

  • Avoidance of discomfort: Psychologically inflexible individuals tend to avoid or suppress uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, or sensations. They may excessively engage in behaviours such as distraction, substance use, or denial to escape distressing experiences. However, this avoidance often leads to increased psychological distress in the long run.
  • Fusion with thoughts: People who are psychologically inflexible may become overly fused with their thoughts and beliefs, treating them as absolute truths rather than mental events. They may believe every thought that arises and act accordingly, without questioning their usefulness or considering alternative perspectives.
  • Rule-governed behaviour: Psychological inflexibility can manifest as rigid adherence to rules and expectations, both self-imposed and societal. Individuals may feel constrained by a set of “shoulds” and “musts,” making it difficult to adapt their behaviour to different situations or consider alternative approaches.
  • Difficulty at living in the present moment: Being present is a challenge for psychologically inflexible individuals. They may ruminate about the past or worry excessively about the future, which can prevent them from fully engaging in the present and experiencing life as it unfolds.
  • Values misalignment: People who lack psychological flexibility may have difficulty identifying their core values or may not prioritise them in their decision-making. Their actions may be driven by external influences or short-term gains, leading to a sense of dissatisfaction and disconnection from a meaningful life.
  • Stuck in problematic patterns: Psychological inflexibility often contributes to being trapped in problematic patterns of behaviour. Individuals may repeat the same unhelpful actions, even when they are aware of their negative consequences. They may struggle to break free from self-defeating habits or unhealthy relationships.

Psychological inflexibility can contribute to various mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, depression, chronic stress, and relationship difficulties. It limits personal growth and inhibits the ability to adapt and thrive in different areas of life. However, it’s important to note that it isn’t a fixed trait, and anyone can develop greater flexibility through self-reflection, therapy, and practice. This is where ACT therapy comes in…!

Benefits of psychological flexibility

Psychological flexibility offers numerous benefits and applications:

  • Enhanced well-being: By accepting and embracing the full range of human experiences, individuals can reduce inner conflict and increase psychological well-being.
  • Increased resilience: Psychological flexibility equips individuals to adapt and bounce back from adversity, fostering resilience and emotional strength.
  • Greater authenticity: Through present-moment awareness and being true to their values, individuals can live more authentically, aligning their actions with their genuine selves.
  • Improved relationships: Psychological flexibility enhances interpersonal relationships by facilitating empathy, effective communication, and understanding.
  • Treatment of mental health conditions: ACT, with its focus on psychological flexibility, has shown effectiveness in treating anxiety disorders, depression, trauma, and chronic pain.
  • Performance enhancement: Psychological flexibility is valuable in sports psychology, academic settings, and organisational development, promoting focus, motivation, and excellence.

The core processes to becoming more psychologically flexible

Psychological flexibility encompasses the six core processes of ACT that contribute to adaptive responses:

  • ACT ModelAcceptance: Acknowledging and making room for uncomfortable or distressing thoughts and emotions without avoidance or suppression.
  • Cognitive defusion: Observing thoughts and beliefs without automatically accepting them as true, creating distance from unhelpful thoughts, and recognising that thoughts are not facts.
  • Being present: Engaging fully in the present moment, cultivating mindfulness practices, and letting go of preoccupations with the past or future.
  • Self-as-context: Developing a broader sense of self that can observe and accept experiences without being overwhelmed by them, recogniszing that thoughts, emotions, and experiences are transient.
  • Values clarification: Identifying and clarifying personal values that represent what is truly important and meaningful, using them as a guide for decision-making and goal-setting.
  • Committed action: Taking effective action guided by values, persistently working towards goals despite challenges and setbacks.

Strategies used to increase psychological flexibility

Developing psychological flexibility is an ongoing process that requires intentional effort and practice. Some popular strategies used in ACT therapy that can increase psychological flexibility are:

  • Mindfulness practices: Engage in mindfulness meditation, self-reflection, or other mindfulness-based exercises to foster present-moment awareness and acceptance.
  • Thought observation: Practice cognitive defusion by observing thoughts without getting caught up in them, recognising that thoughts are mental events and not necessarily accurate representations of reality.
  • Emotional acceptance: Learn to accept and make room for uncomfortable emotions, allowing them to arise and pass without judgment or avoidance.
  • Values exploration: Reflect on personal values, clarifying what truly matters, and consider how they can guide decision-making and actions.
  • Goal setting: Set meaningful goals that align with your values and commit to taking consistent action towards their achievement.
You can learn more about ACT and psychological flexibility across our website:

Knowledge hub articles including ‘What is acceptance and commitment therapy’ or how ACT can support with specific issues.
• Browse our resource hub to download useful ACT model resources such as slides and images.
Live training – regularly updated schedule of live workshops
On-demand training – ready to go when you are or try our FREE Introduction to ACT course.
Blog: Latest insights into ACT
Plus don’t forget to sign-up to our newsletter in the footer to stay on top of all the latest news, training sessions and resources as they are added to the site.

Psychological flexibility empowers individuals to navigate life’s challenges with resilience, authenticity, and purpose. Through use of the core processes and tailoring appropriate strategies to individuals needs a therapist trained in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can confidently provide guidance and support on the journey to psychological flexibility, opening the door to personal growth, improved well-being, and a more fulfilling life for our clients.

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