Psychological Flexibility: Self-as-Process

Written over the span of 4-days with 21 Pilots playing in my head and hot coffee with tons of half-and-half. Two books that I recently finished that inspired this essay are The Art and Science of Valuing in Psychotherapy by Joanne Dahl, and Feeling Great by David Burns.


Possessing the ability to understand your self-as-process will give you the psychological flexibility to adapt to adverse experiences and emotions. – Me

Psychological flexibility refers to one’s capacity to contact the present moment in order to act in healthy ways. Simply put, this means holding our own thoughts and emotions a bit more lightly and acting on longer term values and goals rather than short term impulses, thoughts and feelings. Psychological flexibility is a state of being in which you are able to take a step back and observe the thoughts and feelings in your mind in a non-judgmental way, without becoming fused or entangled with the thoughts themselves. Between the stimulus and our response, is a sliver of space. The liminal space occurs, for example, between the car cutting you off (stimulus) and your rage that follows (response). Yes, it’s a very small space. Within that space, however, lies the freedom to choose how you can best relate and respond to what just occurred. The issue isn’t whether we’ll have thoughts or feelings about things going awry, but how we relate to those thoughts and feelings.

Just last week I found myself fused to resentment and frustration. I had received an email from a co-worker about a project I had been working on. I interpreted his email horribly wrong and turned his offer to help me as a threat to my work ethic. Anyone objective person reading his email would have thought, “wow, that’s great that he’s trying to help and collaborate with you.” But not me. I found myself ruminating in negative thoughts and emotions- How dare he! He thinks I can’t handle the task! I had fused to particular assumptions (contents) and failed to step back and notice the context.

I had been recently writing and reading on psychological flexibility, so I decided it was time to put it to the test. I went into my room, closed my eyes and began the process of diffusion. I started with a mindful meditation practice whereby I simply focus on my breathing. Now mentally calmer, I began acknowledging how I was feeling and the tension I felt in my body. Next, I re-stated the problem in my head (I feel angry at the injustice of having my work ethic being threatened) and immediately challenged the veracity of that claim. Was that really an injustice? Was there clear evidence that he thought I was being lazy or incompetent? Okay, so my “problem” may not have been an actual problem. So, I wondered what cognitive distortion had me under its spell? I identified the distortion of jumping to conclusions through fortune-telling. In other words, I jumped to a negative conclusion after assuming malicious intentions. Now I thought, okay, I don’t have a crystal ball, so what’s the reality of this situation? And here it is. A co-worker sent me a nice email to offer help – that’s it. Diffusion accomplished. Of course, this matter revealed an issue of insecurity that I need to explore a bit more, and actively address (note to self).

This process of diffusion helps me get out of my head and become more psychologically flexible. It’s incredibly easy to fuse to contents such as labels, emotions, and experiences. In a matter of seconds, we can spin out of cognitive control. We all do it. The hard part is cultivating a practice of self-awareness whereby you rein in your mental chaos and bring yourself back to reality.

One important facet with regards to psychological flexibility is recognizing when you are fused to the contents in your life and understanding yourself as a process. The two phrases I will use is self-as-content and self-as-process. Possessing the ability to understand your self-as-a-process will give you the psychological flexibility to adapt to adverse experiences and emotions. Self-as content and self-as-process sound a bit abstract, so let’s unpack their meaning.

Self-as-Content vs. Self-as-Process

Practicing psychological flexibility involves the training your such that see yourself as part of a larger whole of experiences and roles. You are not a static, fixed or concrete label. You are a process of experiences that ebb and flow. When adverse experiences occur, we have a tendency to isolate a feeling, emotion, or identity, and then we make it fixed and concrete. How many times have you thought to yourself, “I’m a failure,” “I’m stupid” or “I’ll never get over this.” These examples are cognitive distortions. The distortion is a kind of “binocular trick” whereby we exaggerate the negative and minimize the positive. We all fall victim to cognitive distortions of this sort. We fuse with a label, role, or experience and it becomes our only reality. We can gain clarity by understanding ourselves by looking closely at the idea of self-as-process and self-as-content.

Self-as-process helps us take a step back see that we need not be defined, threatened, or controlled by the stories we tell ourselves. After all, we are more than the contents and concepts that we live by. The encouragement here is to be aware of the flow of experiences without attachment to them and without investing in which particular experiences occur. Our roles in life will shift, our status within social groups will change, and there is an ebb and flow to life that is extremely unpredictable. It’s not as if the contents of our lives are irrelevant; it just means that we are not fused to the labels, roles and experiences that shape us. Moreover, self-as-process hold the contents of one’s life loosely, knowing that a cancer diagnosis, divorce, job promotion, or moving to another city change the contents of life drastically. The question is: do you have the psychological flexibility to adapt to the changing contents of your life?

Before answering that question, let’s address self-as-content. Self-as-content refers to the labels, roles, and experiences that help you make sense of who you are. The contents are short-cut descriptors such shy, introvert, fearful, optimistic, husband, employee, student, victim of abuse, survivor of military combat. We all live by contents from our lives that form a story of who we are. I am a male in his 40s who is addicted to athletic competition, who strives to be present for my family, who avoids risk due to a daily visceral fear of dying and is sometimes very insecure. These concepts and descriptors are the content of my self (self-as-content), but they are also part of a larger context (self-as-process). The descriptors I noted are relevant to me now as I write them, but these contents will change as time persists, perhaps even drastically.

So, what’s the problem? The problem occurs when we fuse with the contents of our lives, making them concrete realities. When we live by rigid and literal descriptions (contents), we lose the opportunity to step back and see ourselves as part of a greater narrative. This is why men and women experience a mid-life crisis, because they are fused with the idea of being young. The thought of their life being half over is unacceptable. For the majority, death is unacceptable, as it leaves the bereaved in a deep denial because the relationship is forever different. Even more common are those that fuse with negative self-descriptions and make concrete such contents as: laziness, over-weight, ugly, stupid, etc. Or worse, is those who fuse to labels they put on other people (e.g. “Republicans are ignorant” or “Democrats are evil”). Fusion and rigid attachments we form are a way of self-sabotage, whereby we create a narrow space to act, live, and behave. Such austere rigidity will leave very little room for one to make room for both self-compassion and compassion for others.

Alright, so by now you hopefully understand what self-as-content and self-as-process means and perhaps you are probably reminded of times where you fused to the contents of your mind. The question now is, how do you move from fusion with the ideals, thoughts, and experiences and embrace your self-as-a-process. Here are some tools to consider:

Create space between the stimulus and your response

You can do this making contact with the present moment. When we are swept away through identification with labels, ideals, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is ramped up with a flash flood of stress hormones that elevate your breathing and heart rate. Your SNS is responsible for your fight or flight responses. You can calm your SNS by focusing on your breath through a short mindful meditation. Usually, I’ll prescribe 10 deep breathes whereby each exhalation is counted to a slow beat of 4-6 seconds. All we’re going for here is a clearer and calmer mental space for diffusion.

Acknowledge and observe with non-judgment

Now calmly acknowledge the problem and observe what emotions and feelings arises without any judgment. This is yet another step in creating space between the stimulus and response. The encouragement here is to observe the thoughts and emotions that arise with non-judgmental observation. After re-stating the problem, you may notice emotions of anger, shame, or sadness arise. Without judgment or critique, simply acknowledge and observe the emotion. Welcome in whatever arises. A helpful analogy is to invite whatever arises, as if you are inviting guests into your house for a get-to-gather. Moreover, take notice and observe your physiological responses to the stimulus, for example, tightness in stomach and tension is our shoulders and neck. Once again, welcome in whatever tension or stress your body is feeling. No judgment.

Challenge the content by identifying the cognitive distortion

In this step, you can challenge the veracity of the content or problem. We all fall victim to the toxic spell of cognitive distortions that take our mind (or thoughts) hostage. Being aware of the common distortions can help you identify unhealthy thought patterns. Here is a list to familiarize yourself with. You can use this to challenge the content in your mind by assessing what distortion you are engaging with.

All-or-Nothing Thinking: look at things in absolute black-and-white categories, as if shades of gray do not exist.

Overgeneralization: You generalize from a specific flaw, failure or mistake to your entire self. This involves global labels (like bad mom) or words like always or never (I will never find someone to love me).

Mental filtering: You filter out or ignore the positives and focus entirely on the negatives.

Jumping to Conclusions: You jump to painful and upsetting conclusions that aren’t really supported by facts.

Magnification and Minimization: You exaggerate the negativity in a situation and minimize the positives.

Emotional Reasoning: This involves reasoning from the way you feel, such as: “I feel like an idiot, so I must be one.”

Should Statements: You criticize yourself or other people with shoulds, shouldn’ts, musts, ought tos, and have tos. Self-directed should statements can lead to guilt and inferiority and other-directed should statements can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Labeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization in which you try to capture the “essence” or yourself or another person with a one-word label.

Re-Frame with facts

By this point, you are hopefully calm and are no longer fused to the content that entangled you before. Now you can re-frame your thoughts and beliefs with fact-based reality. Going back to my opening illustration with the email from a co-worker, I re-framed the situation with a fact: a co-worker sent me a nice email, offering help. Even if your “problem” is more serious like a death or loss of some sort, you can re-frame as such: I lost someone I love dearly, and it’s okay for me NOT to be okay right now as I grieve. A fact-based response can help position yourself to act with what is in your control and with a compassionate response that helps your overall well-being.

Remind yourself of the values that direct your life

A final step you can take is to remind yourself of the core values that give your life meaning and value. Why values? Because grounding ourselves in our core values helps extricate our-selves from fusion with the contents of our life. Think of your core values as a compass that directs you to your true north. If you haven’t done so already, it’s helpful to identify your personal core values with regard to family, relationships, health, career, education and particular virtues that help you live with more vitality. This is a good final step because we so easily get lulled away by the contents of our lives and forget who we are, so to speak. Our personal core values can ground us in meaningful directions so that we can adapt to adverse life experiences.     

Remember, we are a process. There is an ebb and flow to life, and the process of your life encompasses the good, the bad, and the ugly. The encouragement here is one of psychological flexibility. I have tried to give some helpful tools so that you can rein in your mind so you understand your self-as-process. Suffering and pain are a part of life. However, possessing the ability to understand your self-as-a-process will give you the psychological flexibility to adapt better to adverse experiences and emotions.

Mental Self-Sabotage

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Okay, let’s start by trying to recall a specific date in your past. Close your eyes, and think back to your experiences from Tuesday, January 20, 1998 to Sunday, February 8, 1998. For those 20 days in 1998, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you would have experienced a range of thoughts, leading to emotions such as joy, frustration, anxiousness, happiness, etc.

What I want you to do now is, recall specifically some of the thoughts you thought during those 20 days in 1998. I pose this thought experiment to many of the people that I counsel, and most will remember absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say you would have most definitely experienced, even if for only for a few minutes – thoughts leading to emotional states such as anxiety, sadness, anger, etc. My question is this: what happened to those thoughts? Well, for starters, those thoughts have dissipated into an oblivion. Like morning fog rolling through the terrain, so too those thoughts have dissipated into space.

The importance of my thought experiment is to highlight how fleeting thoughts are. The problem, however, is that despite our transient thoughts, we often get tangled up in our thoughts and spiral into emotional anguish. Mental suffering occurs when a thought arises, then we attach harmful judgments to those thoughts, thus allowing a strong emotional charge to take over our mind.

If thoughts just simply arise in consciousness only to eventually fade away, then why are so many people tormented by their thoughts? I’m sure that I spent at least three minutes in psychological distress during those 20 days in 1998, only to have those thoughts fade away. But why sabotage myself, even for three minutes of mental anguish, when the initial thought will soon evaporate into the ether?

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A healthy way to deal with thoughts is to observe the thought rather than judging or analyzing. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe your reaction. For example, your boss criticizes you for a mistake you made on a project. Rather than identifying with the thought (thought: I can’t do anything right, emotion: self-loathing or sadness), you simply observe the thoughts arise, without critique. Then you choose the appropriate response that is within your control. You may respond my saying, “Okay, now I know better for next time,” or “I need to shift some things around in my life so I can be more effective at work.” But even if emotions of anger or sadness (naturally) creep in, simply observe them.

Why should you avoid judging and analyzing thoughts? Because that’s how emotions get charged. When we attach labels to our thoughts, we pour gasoline on the fire. Before you know it, a thought has turned into ruminating dark thoughts leading to charged emotions.. At this point, you have completely identified with your thoughts. Rather than watching the thought, you have become the thought. Self-sabotage as begun.

Thoughts are just thoughts. They come and go. Like large waves that crash and run up onto shore, then recede back into sea. Why fight the waves? Let them come and go. Watch them. You had over a million thoughts fly through your head in the aforementioned 20 days in 1998, and they floated away. You will have a million more thoughts float in your head in the next 20 days, let them come and go.

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