The concept of psychological flexibility refers in the end to an apparently simple question: when is it appropriate to persevere, or conversely, to move on? When does persistence turn into stubbornness and become counterproductive?
This is a thorny question because persistence is often successful, but it can also be a source of suffering. This is especially the case when there is no solution to a problem. For example, imagine that you have lost your keys. You look for them everywhere and you do nothing else. Of course, you will be more likely to find them by searching for them. If you have lost them in your home, for example, it is by rummaging through and digging up every corner of the house that you are most likely to get your hands on them. Imagine, however, that your keys are permanently lost. You inadvertently threw them in the trash, for example, and the collection took place more than a week ago. Except you don’t remember throwing them away. Continuing to search for them would then be completely useless. Worse, if you only spend your time looking for them while they are rusting in the bottom of a landfill, you risk sacrificing everything else – your job, your family life, your friends – for keys that you will never find.
It is rare that we learn with certainty that we have definitely lost something and that we will never find it. Most of the time, you have to decide when it’s best to stop looking when you don’t know if what you’re looking for is definitely inaccessible or not. More generally, the question we often have to answer in the event of an uncertain outcome is whether to persevere will be profitable in the long run or whether our efforts are useless. In the first case, giving up too soon would be a loss and lack of persistence- a serious handicap; in the second case, it is perseverance which represents the main pitfall, since there is nothing to obtain.
What does this have to do with ACT? Psychological flexibility, or the loss thereof, is in fact the incarnation of a degree of perseverance vis-a-vis our difficult thoughts and emotions. Flexibility corresponds to this ability to adjust, to adapt our behavior in response to our psychological events in function of their consequences. To be flexible is to be capable of persevering when it is necessary or to move on to something else when you are not able to heal your wounds or make it through your sadness.
Perseverance isn’t intrinsically bad or good. What matters is the context. There are signals in this area that can help us to know whether it is useful to persevere in the face of our difficult emotions and thoughts: since you have begun fighting against them, do you feel that you are mastering them more and more, or that they are the ones who control you more and more?
Disengage from the battle against your emotions and thoughts and engage yourself towards that which matters to you.
Translated by Chelsea Davis-Laurin
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Photo by Artem Beliaikin