Psychological Flexibility

Psychological Flexibility is a set of thinking and behavioural skills that supports holistic wellbeing, resilience and effectiveness in the workplace.

By practicing these skills, we become more self-aware and mindful of our approach, we learn to use values rather than emotions to guide our behaviour, and we learn how to pursue meaningful objective goals. We do more of the stuff that truly matters to us in life.

The scientific evidence supporting psychological flexibility is impressive and the approach has been used in a wide range of organisational settings to boost employee health and satisfaction at work. Principles-led, it can be developed in a variety of ways, which is reflected in our approach.

What does it mean to be psychologically flexible?

When we’re psychologically flexible, we bring our best selves to each context. We don’t take passing thoughts and flashes of emotion as guides for action, but rely on our values.

These skills help us avoid pointless struggles with unwelcome inner experiences, ground us in the present here and now, while giving us clarity on what really matters so we can make progress towards our goals.

“Psychological flexibility is the ability to feel and think with openness, to attend voluntarily to your experience of the present moment, and to move your life in directions that are important to you, building habits that allow you to live life in accordance with your values and aspirations.”

Steven Hayes, ‘A Liberated Mind’.

While there are six key skills involved, we can also summarise them in the following easy to remember call to action:

Show up!

Become more aware of the present moment and avoid getting caught up in the disappointments of the past or worrying about the future. Show up in each context, mindful of what it requires of you.

Let go!

Let go of the struggle with your thoughts and emotions, while accepting the discomfort that can come when doing something meaningful. Thoughts are just thoughts, and not always great signposts for action.

Get moving!

Clarify your values to identify what really matters to you in life, then use these values to help you guide your actions, as you pursue those most important goals.

So am I psychologically inflexible then?

If psychological flexibility represents a set of skills, then many of us could benefit from practicing these skills a little more.

Think about how you respond to challenges and setbacks. The types of situations you try to avoid. The actions you’ve taken which you later regret. Common examples of psychological inflexibility include:

  • Lashing out emotionally at others and regretting your actions later
  • Responding to events around you impulsively
  • Making decisions based on imagined futures
  • Getting caught up with worries to the detriment of taking helpful action
  • An unhelpful attachment to aspects of your identity, such as seniority or profession

Moving from inflexibility to flexibility is a learning journey. We’re not born responding to the world around us in an ideal and helpful way. It’s a function of our upbringing and life’s experiences. But change is always possible.

How you can learn more about Psychological Flexibility

There are a number ways you can learn how to implement the principles of psychological flexibility in your everyday life. We offer structured training options, outlined below, as well as one-to-one coaching.

To get you started on our journey, check out the various psychological flexibility articles on our blog and have a listen to our podcast to find out more.

If you’d like to know more about our training options, have a look at the summary below. When it comes to one-to-one coaching, you can find out all about our coaching solutions here.

First steps in Psychological Flexibility

Starting in March 2024, we’re launching a new podcast series focused on the skills of psychological flexibility.

Join Dr. Richard MacKinnon and fellow psychologist and podcaster Ross McIntosh for an exploration of how you can make these important life skills part of your daily routine. They’ll explain how they use the skills, why they matter and how you can start your journey towards increased psychological flexibility. Episodes will be available on our podcast feed, as well as on our YouTube channel.

Then, from April onwards, we’ll have a live online Q&A session where you can join us to get answers to your questions about psychological flexibility. These sessions will be free – you just need to be a member of our online community, which you can join here.

Psychological Inflexibility

In this first episode in the series, Richard and Ross explain what psychological flexibility is, and why the skills in the ACT framework are so helpful. We look at what it means to experience inflexibility and outline what we plan to cover in the remainder of this series.

We discuss how we’ve personally benefited from developing these skills, and some of the ways we’ve brought them to life for our clients in coaching and training contexts.

Do get in touch with your questions and comments and join us for a live Q&A session on 30th April.

Present moment awareness

In this second part of our series on how to develop your psychological flexibility, we look at the importance of being in the present moment, and minimising ‘mental time-travel’. Richard and Ross look at some of the unhelpful ways our attention and focus are pulled from the here and now, along with some simple ways you can start to develop your capacity to just notice.

We make the distinction between day-dreaming and all the benefits this can bring, and unwanted mental time-travel, where we can get taken to worrying imagined futures. It’s the unwanted mental time-travel that takes us away from the present moment, and the opportunities for action it offers us.

Do get in touch with your questions and comments and join us for a live Q&A session on 30th April.

Cognitive Defusion

In this episode, Richard and Ross take a look at the skill called ‘Cognitive Defusion’. Simply put, this is when we learn to see our thoughts for what they are, not what they say they are. We learn how to look at thoughts, not through them.

This allows us to get some distance from thoughts that might distract or upset us, and choose how we want to behave using the context we’re actually in to guide us. We explain the value this skill adds and share some simple ways you can build it into your routine. From writing down the thought, to visualising it as a plate of sushi!

Clarity of values

In this episode, Richard and Ross explore the concept of values and how we can use them. Blues are the personal qualities we want to bring to life – what we want to do, not how we want to feel. This is important, as it can sometimes be uncomfortable to act in line with our values.

We take a look at some simple ways to clarify what your most important values are, how you can bring them to life in your everyday routines, and the importance of avoiding treating them like goals to be achieved, or rules to be followed.

Committed Action

In this episode, Richard and Ross explore the power of taking our values and turning them into behaviour – something that’s referred to as ‘committed action’. This is all about being intentional and turning aspirations into action.

We look at the benefits of starting small, cultivating tiny habits, and adopting an experimental mindset – rather than viewing things in terms of pass or fail.

Acceptance

In this episode, Richard and Ross look at the benefits of accepting the unpleasant stuff our minds give us, rather than struggling with it or avoiding situations or tasks we deem ‘uncomfortable’. Acceptance that discomfort is part of doing meaningful things frees up energy and focus to do those meaningful things.

We explain why it’s not a passive or begrudging acceptance of the status quo, but rather a dynamic and empowering way to ensure you take the action that gets you where you want to be.

Training options

To maximise access to the training, we’ve created several training routes. Regardless of the route you choose, you’ll get an excellent introduction into these important life skills.

We have three Psychological Flexibility courses, ranging from a 90mins introductory session, through to a one-day workshop. All courses can be run in person or via webinar. Additionally, all our training courses can be augmented with the addition of one-to-one coaching following course completion, providing an end-to-end solution in personalised development. We have something for every audience and context.

First Steps in Psychological Flexibility

This is an introductory two-hour session to give delegates an overview of the skill set and guidance on how to cultivate the key habits that support it. Delegates will leave with the tools to start their psychological flexibility journey. This is followed up with a live online Q&A session once delegates have had an opportunity to practice their new skills.

Show up! Let go! Get moving!

This half-day course goes into more detail about psychological flexibility and its constituent skills. We explore how to show up in the present moment, let go of struggles with thoughts and emotions, and get moving in the direction of what really matters in life. This is then followed by a live online Q&A session, where delegates can discuss what it’s been like to bring the skills to life.

Me at my Best

Our flagship Psychological Flexibility course can be run as either a one-day face to face workshop with an online follow-up, or as a series of four online training sessions, scheduled to meet your needs. We’ll explore how our innate psychological inflexibility shows up and makes life more difficult. Each subsequent session covers two of the key skills and their implementation.

What our clients say

We asked Richard to run a few of his ‘Psychological Flexibility 101’ sessions and 55 of my colleagues signed up for the initial workshops.

I was really impressed with their feedback and their comments in the brief online survey we used afterwards illustrated just how keen they were to learn more and start putting this all into practice.

Lorraine O'SullivanGroup People Director, Dentsu Aegis Network, Ireland
We are extremely pleased with the programme and its impact and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Richard and WorkLifePsych. They have exceeded our expectations.

Conall LaveryCEO, Real World Analytics
We recently invited Richard to our first learning festival, to deliver a keynote as well as a workshop on the topic of psychological flexibility.

Working in the public sector brings its own challenges and this is why it was really important to us to offer personal development opportunities centred on wellbeing, and practical tools for us to use on a daily basis when we may be feeling overwhelmed or experiencing anxiety.

Feedback from those taking part was extremely positive and we are already looking at working with Richard on other initiatives.

Ruxandra StewartLearning & Development Lead, Essex County Council
I initially attended the course in the summer of 2018 after which asked Richard to deliver the course to all our colleagues, at every level. Because, quite simply, the information was so very useful to maintaining a healthy mind.
Hamide AhmetHR Director, Tulchan Communications LLP