Weathering Life’s Emotional Storms

The six characteristics of psychological flexibility

By Vanessa Welch-Pemberton, PSY.D, behavioral health

After the last few turbulent years, we all could benefit from improving our psychological flexibility.

Like a tree that bends in the wind without snapping, psychological flexibility helps us weather the storms of anxiety, trauma, medical crisis, relationship challenges and other tempests, while still engaging meaningfully in our lives. Unlike rigid thinking, which can render us brittle and stuck, flexibility allows us to adapt, grow and become the people we want to be in this world.

Psychological flexibility can be defined according to six key characteristics:
  1. Defusion: this is the ability to distance yourself from distressing thoughts by looking at them rather than through them. You can have a distressing thought, notice it, and still behave in a way that reflects who you want to be, rather than simply reacting to the thought.
  2. Mindfulness: the goal is to observe thoughts, feelings and sensations in the moment with curiosity and openness, rather than defensiveness and judgment.
  3. Acceptance: you don’t have to love stress, but trying to suppress it or run from it is unhealthy. Acceptance is allowing yourself to sit with your vulnerability.
  4. Connection to the observing self: this is a recognition that you are not your thoughts and feelings. You are the self that exists beyond the distress. To quote the Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron, “You are the sky. Everything else — it’s just the weather.” Your thoughts and feelings are the storm clouds that eventually move through.
  5. Focus on values: this is about centering your life and decisions on what is meaningful to you, whether that is family, community, creativity, kindness or other core values.
  6. Committed action: this means behaving in a way that aligns with your values, even when distressing thoughts and feelings arise.

Whether we think of it as an innate trait or a learned skill, psychological flexibility is something that we all can improve. Here are three ways to work on yours:

  • Remember: your brain is like a smoke detector. It’s meant to keep you safe in the event of a fire, but it can be a nuisance when it goes off every time you burn the toast. When you have a distressing thought or feeling, ask yourself: Is my house on fire, or is it just burnt toast? Is there anything constructive that I can do about this right now? If so, do it. If not — if the situation is out of your control — look for something meaningful that you can control.
  • Sit with your emotions. They can be scary, but they can’t harm you, and they’re often trying to tell you something. Have a conversation with them. (“Hello darkness, my old friend.”) Get to know them. The more we know about a thing, the less scary it becomes.
  • Acknowledge that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We all have pain and challenges, and those experiences plant seeds in our lives. With those seeds, we can grow resentment, fear, anger or passivity — or, we can cultivate resilience, strength, knowledge, assertiveness and kindness. By aligning our mindset with our values, we create an opportunity to see something painful as a platform for personal growth.

If the way you typically cope with distress feels like it’s no longer working or is disrupting your life, it may be time to seek help. That’s not an indication that you are broken — only that the skills you developed to cope with pain earlier in your life have become less effective or harmful as you’ve grown and changed. A psychologist or licensed therapist can work with you in a safe space to explore new approaches and to develop individualized strategies that serve you better.

Incorporating flexibility practices isn’t always easy, but with time, we get quicker at recognizing our thoughts and feelings as the storm we are weathering. If we can hunker down during these times with people we love, surrounded by meaning, the storms become more tolerable, the winds quieter. We begin to see that life is what we make it, and we can choose to make it beautiful.