Engage Your Resilience “Super Powers” and Achieve Goals with Psychological Flexibility

“You are never given more than you can handle.”

Have you ever cringed at the sound of that phrase? Yea, me too. Still, I often find that I gently say it to myself as a reminder that I can get through whatever is hitting me in the face.

During the same time I was experiencing strange cognitive symptoms (e.g., vision issues, motor loss, dizziness, faintness, “fog”), I also found out that I had been exposed to low levels of natural gas for an unknown length of time, the family member of a student had chosen to take his life, a friend’s brain tumor turned out to be Stage 4 brain cancer, and another friend and mentor had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Really, Universe? Really?!!

There are times in our life that test us. There are days that plain “suck” – you know, those days when you’d rather stay in bed, eat the whole tub of ice cream, have that extra beer or glass of wine, or lie on the couch and binge watch your favorite show series on Netflix – and there are days that we do.

And yet, if you’re reading this, you realize that those days come, they pass, and life keeps on going. If you’ve made it to today, you know there is no “pause” button for life. There was a time when I used to wish so badly there was a way to “take a break” or get a “do-over”, but no more. The fact that I, and you, have made it through every bad day and situation is a sign of strength and resilience.

RESILIENCE

Resilience has been defined as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means bouncing back” from difficult experiences.” (American Psychological Association, 2017)

In more everyday terms, resilience might be thought of as the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other during times of struggle to move toward what’s important to us.

Without planning for this to be my “theme” for 2017 (because who would wish for such a thing!), the ability to keep moving forward has been a recurring practice for me. I haven’t always reacted the way the person I want to be would react, but I am learning a little more from each situation I encounter. My resilience skills are improving, and I believe this is because I have intentionally worked to increase my psychological flexibility.

PSYCHOLOGICAL FLEXIBILITY – huh?!

Psychological flexibility means, “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values.” (Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, 2017)

Again, in everyday language, this refers to noticing and accepting our thoughts, feelings, and emotions for what they are (without judgment or avoidance), and acting in a way that moves us toward our longer-term goals (our values) despite the uncomfortable urges, thoughts, and feelings.

While I don’t really believe that life’s obstacles are pre-determined by the universe, I do believe that our reactions (our behavior) are generally determined; specifically, our behavior is determined by the consequences of our actions and our previous learning histories.

Every action we take moves us either away or toward what is important to us. Resilience is a skill that is made up of a collection of behaviors that, when presented with a difficult situation or obstacle, allows us to be flexible enough to make the choice to act in a way that is values-aligned…despite the hurdles that show up and try to deter us. Therefore, I believe that increasing “psychological flexibility” improves our resiliency “super powers”!

(Oh, and there’s research to support this idea.)

In my work with clients, I help them notice their behavior within the larger context of the environment. Essentially, I am a noticing coach. Clients learn to notice:

  • their behavior in the present moment
  • how their behavior works for them within the context of a given situation
  • whether their actions are moving them toward or away from what matters to them

Let’s face it; much of what we do on a daily basis occur on “auto-pilot”. We don’t have to put mental effort into routine behaviors or habits. This is, of course, a good thing when it comes to behaviors that serve us well; unfortunately, many unhealthy behaviors occur for the same reason. Therefore, when we want to change our behavior, we find that it is often easier to engage in our “default” behavior during those initial days, weeks, and months.

Are you familiar with this famous quote by Viktor Frankl?

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

When we perceive the stimulus as a negative experience, it’s easy to get hooked and react in a way that allows us to escape or avoid the situation. For example, you might have an extra glass of wine to escape from dealing with an uncomfortable emotion, or you might reschedule an upcoming evaluation for a poorly performing employee in order to avoid a potentially negative reaction from the employee.

As your ability to notice your internal behavior (e.g., thoughts, emotions, self-talk) in the moment improves, so does your ability to notice “hooks” and to pause and create that space between those stimuli and your observable reactions. In that space, you can then choose to act in a way that moves you toward your longer-term goals.

For example, you might notice the uncomfortable feelings related to an upcoming check-in call with a client who has not been making progress toward health-related goals. If open and honest communication is important to you as a coach, instead of choosing to avoid discussing the client’s lack of progress, you could choose to prepare notes to have the difficult conversation and plan to engage in a conversation with said client to identify potential barriers they are experiencing (even if you suspect you might be a barrier).

Research supports the positive effects of improving one’s psychological flexibility; numerous studies have shown that psychological flexibility helps protect against depression, anxiety, and generalized distress (Bond et al., 2011). As such, improving psychological flexibility appears to be useful in our approach to build strong resilience skills so that, depending on situational demands, we can accept that the negative experience is happening and continue to act in alignment with our goals.

So, what can you do right now to get started and improve your resilience “super powers”?

First, acknowledge that YOU are at the center of noticing the context of what is happening at any given moment.

Second, you are also the only one who can notice potential “hooks”, as these are experienced internally and show up as thoughts, emotions, self-talk. No one else can read your mind or hear your inner dialogue. These “hooks” are the things that tend to get in the way of moving us toward our goals.

Third, begin to notice your actions, especially in relation to potential hooks. For example, if you notice you have the thought that you “should set up a meeting to discuss a difficult work situation with your supervisor but also notice you feel anxious because you do not feel your supervisor is supportive”, notice what happens next. Do you schedule the meeting or do you decide, instead, to avoid scheduling the meeting and continue to put up with working in an environment that is toxic for you in order to avoid the uncertainty of your supervisor’s reaction?

Fourth, once you’ve acted, assess how your behavior worked for you. Did your behavior move you closer or further from your goal(s)? If your behavior moved you further from your goal(s), take some time to reflect on the short-term and long-term effects of that behavior.

Every action serves a purpose; even our “away” moves. Behaviors that move us away from our goals likely serve to help us avoid or escape the negative experience and make us feel a sense of relief in the short term. However, the negative experience still exists or is apt to recur; therefore, away moves are rarely effective in the long run. For example, the difficult situation at work is still going to be there even if you choose to delay scheduling the meeting with your supervisor in order to avoid a difficult conversation today.

You’ll find that, by practicing noticing, your self-awareness about your behavior increases, and so does your ability to identify potential “toward” moves within a given context. Over time, when you find yourself in that “space” between the stimulus and the response, you will notice that you have the choice to move in two directions—away or toward what’s important to you.

When you have greater psychological flexibility, the probability of choosing to move toward your goals increases, and when you can do this despite a negative experience, you have also demonstrated greater resilience.

~ Julie


Want to learn more? Check out some of the resources below:

Bryan, C. J., Ray-Sannerud, B., & Heron, E. A. (2015). Psychological flexibility as a dimension of resilience for posttraumatic stress, depression, and risk for suicidal ideation among Air Force personnel. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4(4), 263-268. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2015.10.002

Bond, F. W., Hayes, S. C., Baer, R. A., Carpenter, K. M., Guenole, N., Orcutt, H. K., & Zettle, R. D. (2011). Preliminary psychometric properties of the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire—II: A revised measure of psychological inflexibility and experiential avoidance. Behavior Therapy, 42(4), 676-688. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2011.03.007

Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behavior Research and Therapy, 44(1), 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2005.06.006

Johnson, J., Wood, A. M., Gooding, P., Taylor, P. J., & Tarrier, N. (2011). Resilience to suicidality: The buffering hypothesis. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(4), 563–591. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.12.007

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