How Psychological Flexibility Teaches You to Effectively Deal with Mental Pain
This time of uncertainty and upset has left many of us feeling unsure of our external environment. You may also feel overwhelmed and threatened by the rapid pace of change, which, in turn, may cause you to feel shaken or unsure of yourself on the inside as well.
And what is even more confusing is that things like the Internet and smartphones, which are supposed to make life easier for us, help to speed up this process.
Life is becoming more complicated than easier
Please don’t get me wrong, technological innovations are great and necessary, but they also present us with ever greater mental and social challenges. We are constantly exposed to horror, drama, and judgment. No matter how calm we feel, as soon as we read the latest headlines on our computer or smartphone and see the destructive images full of violence, we are drawn into a vortex of uncertainty, upset and fear.
As life becomes more complicated than easier with all our progress, and as the outside world changes at a rapid pace, our inner world must change as well. We must adapt our behavior and develop specific skills that will enable us to respond to all these changes with greater ease and confidence. This sounds logical, but raises the question of how we can achieve this? What exactly do we need to do to meet the new challenges?
The answer is that we need to learn skills that allow us to become psychologically less rigid but more flexible.
The solutions our mind gives us are often unhelpful
Interestingly, we all already have the resources that enable us to live our lives in a way that allows us to meet life’s challenges: We all have deep inner wisdom based on our life experiences. So if this resource is always available to us, why aren’t we using it?
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The simple answer is that our minds get in the way because they continuously pretend solutions to all our experiences, including negative and painful ones. This seems logical at first; who wants to live in pain, fear, and insecurity?
However, the problem is that our minds’ solutions are often unhelpful because they put us into patterns of psychological rigidity or inflexibility.
What causes psychological rigidity?
Psychological rigidity is the self-deception of security, which in the short term creates a pleasant, reassuring feeling, but which is illusory and, in the long run, does not solve your problems, but instead increases them.
If we remain in rigidity, our behavior is marked by the attempt to run away from the mental challenges we have to face. Like in a stressful situation, we constantly try to flee. We dive into brooding, worries, distraction, self-stimulation, overwork – all in an attempt to avoid the pain we feel.
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Psychological rigidity is essentially the attempt to avoid negative thoughts and feelings caused by difficult experiences, either those we are experiencing or those in our memory.
Why avoidance strategies amplify your problems
Here is an example: You fail an exam, and as a result, you think, “I am such a failure! Before you know it, that thought is pushed into a corner of your memory where it lingers. To distract and calm yourself, you meet friends for a beer. This is perfectly fine as far as it goes.
However, if you repeat this kind of behavior and it becomes a permanent avoidance strategy, so that you probably don’t prepare for the next exam, your problems will only increase. Not only that your goals of personal and professional development are pushed away. It’s also possible that you are putting your health at risk through an unhealthy form of self-soothing – in this case, the regular consumption of alcohol.
Positive affirmations can also be a form of psychological rigidity
Suppose instead, you try to reassure yourself that you are smart and capable. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. It helps to have positive thoughts, doesn’t it?
Here’s the thing: If you think positive thoughts explicitly to avoid or contradict negative thoughts, that’s another form of psychological rigidity. Now, the positive thoughts will remind you of precisely the thoughts you hoped to avoid.
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Positive affirmations like “I am a good person!” work great as long as we don’t really need them. However, if we use them as an avoidance strategy, for example, when we feel bad, such affirmations only reinforce our negative feelings.
Psychological rigidity leads to additional pain
Each of us has behaviors that we know deep inside that they do not serve our best interests. The examples are endless: the diet that doesn’t last; the bag of potato chips after a long day at work; too much wine at the last party; the upcoming deadline that you keep putting off; or the moment when you get into a fight with your spouse for no real reason.
Each of these things alone is harmless. But the same psychological mechanisms that drive these behaviors can get us into big trouble if left unchecked. For too many of us, the occasional bag of chips or glass of wine becomes a habit. Postponing deadlines and procrastination ends up in shattered life dreams, and fighting with the people you love leads to the diminishing intimacy you so desperately long for.
Psychological rigidity leads to major mental health problems
The point is that if the purpose of a coping strategy is to avoid a negative feeling or thinking a disturbing thought, or to eliminate a painful memory or a challenging experience, in the long run, the problem will almost always increase rather than decrease, causing you additional pain.
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Psychological rigidity leads to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, trauma, eating disorders, and is closely related to any other mental problem. It undermines a person’s ability to learn new things, to enjoy work, be intimate with others, or face the challenges of an illness.
Why we must turn to our suffering
The key to overcoming life’s challenges is not to turn away from pain, but to do exactly the opposite: to turn to your suffering. “Turn to my suffering?” I hear you ask. Yes, that’s right. To live a life full of meaning and purpose, we must stop suppressing or numbing our pain.
Instead, we must learn to accept that we have unpleasant feelings and thoughts. Why? Because our nervous system does not contain a delete button, and our thought processes are too complex to work always clean and smooth. Pain is part of life, and every person, regardless of their cultural or economic background, experiences pain in life. The main issue is not our difficult thoughts and feelings as such, but how we relate to them.
Moving from psychological rigidity to psychological flexibility
But what exactly is the advantage when we finally start to accept our pain? Accepting painful experiences lets us reduce the impact these experiences have on our lives and change our lives in a way that is consistent with what we value most.
This approach is not easy; facing our painful emotions and thoughts requires willingness, as you move into areas of your life where you feel most vulnerable.
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The good news is that there are several skills you can learn, all of which promote psychological flexibility, the exact opposite of psychological rigidity. Psychological flexibility allows you to accept your pain and live your life as you wish, including the pain and challenges that life inevitably brings.
What is psychological flexibility?
Psychological flexibility is the ability to feel and act with openness, to engage with the experiences of the present moment voluntarily, and to direct life in the direction you consider important by developing appropriate habits that enable you to live life by your values and aspirations.
Psychological flexibility allows us to look at the places in ourselves and in our lives where we are vulnerable in a non-judgmental and compassionate way because the things that can cause us the most pain are often the things we care about most. Our deepest longings and strongest motivations are hidden precisely where we have developed the most unhealthy defense and avoidance strategies.
Why is psychological flexibility so powerful?
To understand why psychological flexibility is so immensely valuable and helpful, we must realize that any rigidity in which our mind traps us with unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior contains an intense longing deep down. In other words, we are doing the wrong things, but for the right reasons, because we all have the ultimate goal of living a meaningful life.
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Psychological flexibility allows us to approach this hidden longing more openly and flexibly, which enables us to satisfy the longing.
Start accepting your feelings
I have already mentioned a central component of psychological flexibility: acceptance. It is about accepting that you have unpleasant feelings and thoughts because they are a natural part of the human experience.
However, it is crucial to understand that psychological flexibility is by no means a passive approach. It is not about merely accepting what life gives you and what is there; this could lead to resignation!
What matters is what you do, so your behavior and your actions. This includes stopping to avoid painful experiences, not running away from them, or simply giving in to the impulse to control your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
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This is difficult for most of us and requires willingness and energy. I can assure you that your mind will protest and remind you that avoiding and suppressing pain is an easier way to feel good again quickly.
Avoiding pain can leave you feeling completely numb
Remember, our mind does not think in the long term; it consistently offers you solutions that may bring short-term relief, but in the long run, are highly unhealthy, especially for your mental health. Avoiding pain can even lead to losing the ability to feel at all, leaving you completely numb.
Acceptance, on the other hand, is the decision to experience personal experiences – both positive and negative – with openness and curiosity. As a result, you feel empowered to lead your life the way you want to.
Start noticing your thoughts instead of getting caught up in them
Another critical step is to take your difficult thoughts and emotions a little easier without giving them more attention than they deserve.
This is crucial because your thoughts and emotions tend to be short-lived and unreliable indicators of your long-term values and goals. You have little control over them (yes, we actually have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we think!), and they tend to fluctuate – sometimes dramatically.
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If you rely primarily on your thoughts and feelings and act on their basis, you will overlook the more important, more enduring patterns of action that give your life true meaning, vitality, and richness.
Start acting on your values
Once you begin to carry your thoughts and feelings lightly, you can act based on longer-term values and goals rather than on short-term impulses, thoughts, and feelings. You begin to see your thoughts for what they really are – continuous attempts to give meaning to things. You can now decide to what extent you give them power, e.g., only if they really serve you.
With this ability to distance yourself from your thoughts, it is also in your hands to liberate yourself from their harmful effects. Meaning, you have more control over your life again.