How to Improve Psychological Flexibility

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

Psychological Flexibility is quickly becoming one of the key indicators of psychological health and well-being. Improving one’s psychological flexibility promotes mental health and helps a person take action toward valued directions in life. Improving psychological flexibility is the goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), supported by over 330 clinical trials

When learning ACT, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the unique concepts. As an ACT practitioner myself, it took a while to feel comfortable with the language and unique process-based approach.

In this article, I summarize the six pillars of ACT in plain language, to hopefully benefit you or your clients. So how do you improve psychological flexibility?

  1. Be Willing to Feel Difficult Emotions
  2. Step Back From Your Thoughts
  3. Focus on the Present
  4. Focus on Connection, Not Comparison
  5. Live by Your Own Values
  6. Build Habits Based on Your Values

These six processes can be divided into three major areas: openness, awareness, and engagement. Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of these processes and how you can use them to improve psychological flexibility.

Flexible Openness

These processes consist of a sense of openness to painful emotions and difficult thoughts.

Be Willing to Feel Difficult Emotions

Explanation

This is the ACT process of acceptance vs. avoidance. It is rooted in our yearning to feel and experience life. When we tell ourselves we need to avoid painful feelings, we begin to avoid more and more situations that could potentially lead to a painful outcome. 

Rather than merely avoiding pain, one may begin to avoid positive situations as well, out of the fear that they can potentially result in pain. For example, a person may avoid feelings of love and intimacy out of a deeper avoidance of the potential pain if the relationship does not work out. 

Acceptance opens a person up to a sense of willingness to experience emotions. This means one can flexibly open up to painful emotions and learn from them. Rather than viewing emotions as good vs. bad, a flexible approach views emotions as information. 

Opening up to emotions does not imply being consumed by them. Rather, it means opening up to the lessons they are sharing with us. 

Being willing to experience painful emotions also allows one to begin opening up to experiencing more pleasurable feelings as well. This leads to being able to savor life and fulfill our deep human yearning for feeling.

Metaphor

This metaphor for acceptance is called “ball in a pool,” cited from the ACBS website, here

“Imagine what you’re doing with these (thoughts/distressing memories/feelings) is like fighting with a ball in a pool. You don’t like them, you don’t want them, and you want them out of your life. So you try and push this ball under water and out of your consciousness. However, the ball keeps floating back to the surface, so you have to keep pushing it down or holding it under the water. This struggling with the ball keeps it close to you and is tiring and futile. If you were to let go the ball, it would pop up, float on the surface near you and you probably wouldn’t like it. But if you let it float there for a while, with your hands off, it would eventually drift away and out of your life. And even if it didn’t, at least you’d be better able to enjoy your swim rather than spending your time fighting!”

Exercise

Name the particular emotion you are feeling, curiously observing it like a scientist. What shape is this emotion? Allowing it to be there, breathe it in. What feelings come up in your body? Continue observing it curiously. You can even adapt this to fit with the metaphor of the ball in the pool. What color is the ball? Are there any designs on it? If you had to rate the ball on a scale of 1 to 10, what would you give it?

Why it Works

These techniques are designed to facilitate a process whereby a person stays in contact with difficult thoughts or emotions. The willingness to observe it in this way facilitates a degree of openness that changes one’s relationship to these emotions or thoughts. 

Rather than being something one must fight, suppress, or avoid, flexibly making space for the pain also allows one to open up to pleasurable experiences, fulfilling the yearning to feel.

Step Back From Your Thoughts

Explanation

This is the ACT process of cognitive defusion vs. cognitive fusion. This is a fancy way of saying, having some distance from your thoughts vs. being constantly identified with everything your mind tells you. 

Throughout one’s day, the mind may make commentary regarding how things should be: “I should have done that better… he should do things a different way… The government should fix this.” 

Although these thoughts could potentially be useful in helping us improve ourselves, others, and society, they are often intrusive and rigid, causing us to react rather than step back and act mindfully and effectively. 

This temptation to be rigidly identified with our thoughts comes from the yearning for a sense of coherence and understanding. We want the world around us to make sense and we want a sense of understanding of how things work. 

When one’s mind becomes too rigid, we try to impose a false sense of order on the world, treating life as a problem to be solved. Living more and more in your head, one may develop defense mechanisms such as rationalization and intellectualization. 

You may feel like you need to be right, constantly debating, and looking for opportunities to argue your perspective. Learning to step back from your thoughts allows for increased cognitive flexibility, allowing you to mindfully engage in dialogue more openly with yourself and others. 

Learning to talk to yourself more flexibly is the foundation of this process.

Metaphor

This popular ACT metaphor is called “Leaves on a stream” and can also be incorporated into a visualization during a meditation session. 

Imagine you are sitting beside a gentle stream in the Fall. Leaves from nearby trees occasionally fall into the stream and are gently carried away.

As you watch the imaginary stream, bring your attention to your breath, noticing the sensations. As you keep the focus on your breath, you may have thoughts pop into your mind. Simply place that thought on a leaf and watch it float by. It may get stuck for a moment, but simply let go, gently bringing the attention back to the breath.

You can find a version of this metaphor as a guided meditation on YouTube here.

This exercise is designed to depict how you are not your thoughts. Rather you can be aware of your thoughts, choosing where you want to focus your attention.

This is the difference between saying, “I’m stupid,” and “I’m having the thought that I’m stupid.” Listening to the way someone phrases these kinds of statements gives you insight into their level of cognitive flexibility at that moment. 

Exercise

Pick a particular intrusive thought. Now imagine that thought is written on your hand. If you had to place that thought at any distance from your face, how close is that thought right now? How close is that thought when you’re in a particularly challenging situation?

If your hand is covering your eyes, notice how difficult it would be to engage in daily life with this thought so close. Now, move your hand away and slightly to the side.

Now you can see the thought clearly, in addition to the rest of the world around you. The thought will not go away, but this distance allows you to move forward effectively.

You can watch Russ Harris perform a version of this exercise here.

Next time this particular thought comes up, perhaps you can even give it a name. Some people use a name inspired by a suitable television character. When the voice in your head begins to take over, greet it like an old friend, thanking it for trying to help. If it is not useful right now, leave it alone and focus your attention on what matters most.

Why it Works

This is designed to facilitate a process whereby a person can flexibly relate to their thoughts rather than being dominated by them. When the mind becomes a dictator, we lose control of our focus, being pulled into rigid ways of being. 

Getting some distance from our thoughts allows for a more functional way of being, engaging with issues pragmatically as they arise, rather than trying to impose a false sense of order onto the world. Gaining distance from the dictator within allows for greater wisdom and peace of mind. 

Flexible Awareness

These processes are focused on developing a sense of presence and awareness.  

Focus on the Present

Explanation 

This is the ACT process of present moment awareness. This means flexible attention to the present moment as opposed to being caught up in thoughts about the past or future. 

Although it is useful to consider the past and the future, getting caught up in thoughts about the past or future takes away from one’s ability to effectively engage in the world, potentially even affecting one’s relationships. 

This process is often compared to mindfulness or meditation practice, but it does not require any kind of belief or spiritual tradition. As Daniel J Siegel states:

“Mental presence is a state of being wide awake and receptive to what is happening, as it is happening in the moment, within us and between the world and us. Presence cultivates happiness.”

Although it sounds simple, this can be a challenge in practice. Throughout daily life, we may drift into worries of the future or ruminations on past situations. These thoughts generally start with, “what if..” or “I should have…” and derail our focus on what can be done here and now to most effectively move forward. 

Metaphor

Here is an ACT metaphor on present moment awareness adapted from “the mind as a GPS” description by Philippe Vuille here:

Imagine your thoughts about the future are like a GPS voice, telling you what is coming up next. You then become too fixated on the GPS, fiddling with the controls, adding stops, checking your arrival time, and adjusting the volume.

Becoming so focused on the GPS, you lose focus of the road, missing an exit, nearly rear-ending a car, and perhaps even making a wrong turn into a lake. Although a GPS can be helpful, we need to listen to its feedback from the present moment, engaged in the task at hand, and mindful of our surroundings. 

Exercise 

Here is a simple guided meditation that can help develop present moment awareness:

As you sit with your feet on the floor, notice the sensation of your body in the chair. Now bring your attention to your breath, noticing the rise and fall of your chest. Now notice the sensation of your feet on the floor. 

Notice any tension in your legs, arms, hands, shoulders, and face, letting it go. Bring the attention back to the breath for a moment. 

Now expand your awareness to any sounds around you. Perhaps you may not have been aware of small sounds like a fan, the hum of electricity, people talking, or nature. Simply notice the sounds.

Keep the attention on the sounds while also noticing the breath. 

You can now continue in this way for however long without the guidance. 

If a thought pops up, you can use the previously described leaves on a stream metaphor to refocus your attention. 

Why it Works

Getting pulled into the past and the future comes from our yearning for a sense of orientation. We want to make sense of our place in time, often ruminating or worrying. This mindless disconnection pulls us away from being able to flexibly engage in the present. 

When we are engaged in noticing the present, we can act more effectively. As Mary Schmich states:

“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”

Being here and now allows for a more flexible, fluid, and voluntary approach to life. Through this mindful awareness, we can better meet our need for orientation without getting caught up in our thoughts, missing the metaphorical off-ramp. 

Focus on Connection, Not Comparison

Explanation

This is the ACT process of the observer self vs. the conceptualized self. This means the difference between perspective-taking and being trapped in an egoic sense of self. 

This comes from the core yearning for a sense of belonging. When we feel like our sense of belonging is threatened, we may try to compensate by fostering a sense of specialness. Rather than having a genuine connection, we focus on how we compare to others. 

Perhaps this is an attempt to gain a sense of security by carving out our place on top of a hierarchy. Social media has been a popular median for this type of social comparison. I discuss this further in my article, Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?

This attempt to fill one’s need for connection through ego inflation leaves us feeling even more alone. Rather than stuffing the ego full of status symbols and identities, developing the observer self allows for true connection. 

Metaphor 

The following description is adapted from the “torch in the dark” metaphor, illustrated by Russ Harris here.

Imagine you are in a dark room shining a flashlight on various objects that are around you. The light comes from the same source, and what you see depends on where you point the light.

Like the flashlight, you bring your attention to various things. Sometimes this awareness goes inward while other times it becomes aware of external objects. You are not the objects you illuminate. Instead, like the flashlight, you are the awareness noticing these objects. 

The conceptualized self fixates on the objects, clinging to them for a sense of identification. It forgets that you are not these things. Rather, you are the awareness of these things. 

Exercise

Here is an ACT exercise by Russ Harris, shared here. It builds on mindfulness practice to develop a sense of oneself as awareness rather than identification with the contents of awareness.

“Notice how you’re sitting (5 secs)
Notice what you can see (5 secs)
Notice what you can smell and taste (5 secs)
Notice what you can hear (5 secs)
Notice what you’re thinking (5 secs)
Notice what you’re feeling (5 secs)
Notice what you’re doing (5 secs)
There’s a part of you in there that notices everything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think, feel, or do… is it good, bad, or ‘just there’?”

Why it Works

Developing a sense of oneself as awareness instead of being rigidly ego identified allows for greater flexibility in one’s interpersonal relations. Rather than trying to fill the need for belonging through a false sense of specialness based on social comparison, this process lets go of these attachments, allowing space for genuine connection. 

Letting go of the conceptualized self allows for greater behavioral flexibility since the constant need to defend one’s ego falls away. Rather than being on high alert for any threat to one’s sense of self, one can focus on the present, more aware and engaged, better fueling a sense of connection and community.

Flexible Engagement

These processes consist of knowing what you want and committing to taking action.

Live by Your Own Values

This is the ACT process of values-orientation. This means having a sense of the things you value rather than merely following orders or operating based on external social ideals.

This is based on our need for a sense of meaning and self-directed purpose. In the absence of a self-directed purpose, one may fill this need by turning to external standards of what one is told one “should” want. In our world of social media and rampant consumerism, this often manifests as a drive to acquire consumer products. 

This need for purpose may also manifest as compliance or simply going through the motions of doing what one is supposed to do. 

Both of these routes ultimately lead to this need not being met, resulting in a sense of emptiness or boredom. Developing a clear sense of one’s own values provides a sense of self-directed purpose.

Metaphor

This metaphor is adapted from “The Scoreboard” metaphor in The Big Book of ACT Metaphors:

Imagine playing your favorite sport. Throughout the game, the score goes back and forth, and there are several exciting moments. During the final seconds, your team pulls ahead. You look at the scoreboard and notice the number, indicating you’ve won.

Now, what if the scorekeeper were to come along at the beginning of the game and offer to put that same score on the board, without having to play the game? Would you take up that offer? If not, why wouldn’t you? 

This is the difference between values and goals. Values are about the process of how the game is played, and goals are about the outcome. Although the goal is to win, the value is what keeps us engaged in the game. 

Some values at play in this metaphor may include fairness, resilience, excellence, and teamwork. Goals without values seem empty, like putting the final score up without having to play the game.  

Exercise 

Values can be found in three major areas of life: moments of sweetness, moments of pain, and role-models. These values exercises are adapted from The Big Book of ACT Metaphors:

When clarifying one’s values by looking at moments of sweetness, think back to a moment where you felt alive and engaged. Notice the details of this moment. What were you doing? Who was with you? What did you feel?

Slow down and see if you can emotionally connect to what you value about this moment. This same exercise can be applied to painful moments, pulling out values by noticing what was missing in those moments.

Values can also be found by looking at one’s role models. Pick a person you admire. What qualities of theirs do you admire?

Slow it down, emotionally connecting with the aspects of this person you admire. Now consider what values come from these qualities. Some examples might be compassion, creativity, genuineness, and selflessness.

Now how might you be able to live by these values yourself?

Why It Works

Connecting with one’s values leads to more psychological flexibility by offering a ‘why’ to fuel the ‘how’ and the ‘what’. We often prioritize knowing what result we want and how we will get that result, neglecting why we want it. 

As Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Living in alignment with our values provides motivation in addition to psychological flexibility when obstacles arise. Like the game being more fundamental than the final score, values are more fundamental than the end goal. You do not have control over the end goal. You only have control over the way you engage in the task. 

Victor Frankl goes on to highlight this fundamental ability to choose one’s valued way of being:

“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Choosing one’s own way of being fulfills our human yearning for a sense of purpose and direction.   

Build Habits Based on Your Values

Explanation

This is the ACT process of Committed Action. This is based on our core yearning for a sense of competence. When we do not have this need met, we may react by seeking external achievements, status, and engaging in addictive approaches to work. 

Others may fall into the opposite trap, becoming paralyzed by perfectionism. To maintain a false sense of competence, a person may self-sabotage by failing to take action or complete a project to maintain one’s false sense of competence, fearing possible criticism. 

Both of these approaches are disconnected from one’s values, relying on external validation and fear of judgment. Connecting to our values allows for a more flexible approach to taking action since the criteria for success is based on how one operates (values), not the end result (goal).

This process is focused on integrating increasingly larger habits of values-based actions into one’s daily life. There can be a degree of appropriate goal-setting in this process, so long as a commitment to values is the foundation.

Metaphor

This metaphor for committed action is called “waiting for the wrong train,” adapted from The Big Book of ACT Metaphors:

Imagine you are waiting for a train to go somewhere special. There are two trains indicating they are going to your destination. The first train looks odd, dirty, and uncomfortable, while the second one looks clean, comfortable, and luxurious.

You excitedly choose the second train, anticipating the trip ahead as you wait to board. The first train then leaves, and another odd-looking one going to your destination pulls up.

You keep waiting for the comfortable train all afternoon while the other trains come and go. Will the comfortable train ever leave the station?

This metaphor highlights how leaving your comfort zone is often required when stepping out on your life’s journey. Also, if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you will keep getting what you’ve been getting. 

Exercise  

This exercise is based on the ACT creative hopelessness technique:

Ask yourself, what do you want in life?
After you have a picture of what you want, ask yourself, what have you been doing to get that thing?
For each thing you have been doing, ask yourself, how has that been working?
The key here is to remain curious rather than critical. 
If what you have been doing up until now has not been working, ask yourself, are you waiting for the metaphorical luxury train?
If so, would you be willing to try something new?
If you are committed to acting on this new path, what small thing might you do tomorrow to get the train moving? 

How It Works

Building out patterns of committed action over time builds behavioral flexibility by moving toward a greater sense of genuine competence, based in one’s values, rather than being stuck in external validation-seeking.

The process of building out these behaviors in incremental habits allows for a greater level of practicality and a sense of long-term sustained progress. 

Summary

Improving psychological flexibility is the core purpose of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This approach is supported by over 330 clinical trials. Improving psychological flexibility leads to better mental health outcomes, helping people meet core needs and take action toward a values-oriented life. 

Here is a summary of the information presented in this article:

Openness

Be Willing to Feel Difficult Emotions

ACT Process: Acceptance
Explanation: Meeting one’s need to feel by being open to experiencing both painful and pleasant experiences rather than avoiding them
Metaphor: Fighting with a ball in a pool
Exercise: Name and describe an emotion

Step Back From Your Thoughts

ACT Process: Cognitive Defusion
Explanation: Meeting one’s need for coherence by gaining distance from one’s thoughts rather than imposing false rigid order
Metaphor: Leaves on a stream visualization
Exercise: Thoughts as your hand in front of your face 

Awareness

Focus on the Present

ACT Process: Present moment awareness
Explanation: Meeting one’s need for orientation by living in the present rather than ruminating on past experiences or worries of the future 
Metaphor: Mind as a GPS
Exercise: Mindfulness meditation/ leaves on a stream 

Focus on Connection, Not Comparison

ACT Process: Observer self/ transcendent self/ self-as-context
Explanation: Meeting one’s need for connection by taking a broader perspective rather than narrowly identifying with rigid conceptualized self-identities to seek specialness 
Metaphor: Torch in the dark
Exercise: Noticing various senses

Engagement

Live by Your Own Values

ACT Process: Values orientation
Explanation: Meeting one’s need for purpose and direction through core values rather than empty conformity to external standards
Metaphor: The scoreboard
Exercise: Moments of sweetness, moments of pain, and role-models

Build Habits Based on Your Values

ACT Process: Committed action
Explanation: Meeting one’s need for competence through habits of values-oriented actions rather than seeking validation through overwork or perfectionistic procrastination 
Metaphor: Waiting for the wrong train
Exercise: Creative hopelessness adapted to the train metaphor 

Resources 

The explanations, metaphors, and exercises presented here are some of my personal favorites, but there are many more. Here are some helpful ACT resources:

If you are interested in taking a deep dive into ACT, I highly recommend the online ACT Immersion course by Dr. Steven Heyes, the founder of ACT. This course has been an invaluable resource for me personally and has informed many of the explanations provided in this article. If you are serious about learning ACT, this is the course for you. Check it out here for more information.

The Big Book of ACT Metaphors is another great resource I would recommend. As you may have noticed, I cited it several times throughout this article. It is a highly practical book full of explanations, metaphors, exercises, and ACT worksheets, ready to use in your everyday practice.

ACT Made Simple by Dr. Russ Harris is another excellent resource, offering an easy-to-read summary of ACT. This book has recently been updated to include an ACT understanding of self-compassion and trauma, translating complex ideas into simple language.  

If you would like to connect with a specialized ACT therapist, view the directory on the official ACBS website here

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you’re just bored and looking for a new hobby, check out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

*As an affiliate partner, I may receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial. 


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