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Even amid a pandemic, finding creative ways to connect with others is so important. But since this cortisol-spiking year has also been ripe for spiking interpersonal friction about everything from mask-wearing compliance and politics to human rights issues and beyond, keeping bonds with loved ones healthy and happy is no small task. According to a recent meta-analysis of 174 papers and 203 unique samples published in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, though, the key to having smoother platonic, romantic, and familial relationships is psychological flexibility.
Psychological flexibility (also known as “emotional flexibility” and “mindful flexibility”) refers to being mindful and present when faced with an interpersonal conflict or stressful situation. It encompasses having a tool kit of life skills to help you manage any points of tension that may arise. And, according to licensed marriage and family counselor, Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, psychological flexibility allows you to see things from a bigger and broader perspective, even when relationships become challenging.
“Being psychologically flexible allows you to see the other person’s side and work on a compromise.” —Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT
“Being psychologically flexible allows you to see the other person’s side and work on a compromise,” says Thompson. “This can bring safety and trust into a relationship and allow [someone] to feel heard and seen. It also allows you to be able to have difficult conversations to work toward a deeper feeling of intimacy. Being psychologically flexible in relationships is necessary for keeping the relationship feeling balanced, fair, and intimate.”
This grace under pressure can be especially meaningful for couples. The research also found that psychological inflexibility—which is marked by inattentiveness, avoidance of difficult thoughts and feelings, and getting derailed by various setbacks and experiences—can have potentially damaging results, like lowered satisfaction and emotional support, and increased conflict and aggression.
Basically, when you focus on increasing your emotional flexibility, you increase the freedom and space to find your own truth while simultaneously hearing out the other people in your life. You’re also better able to gracefully pivot when things, uh, don’t necessarily go your way in a given situation. So, how can you increase your ability to practice psychological flexibility?
Essentially, psychological flexibility encompasses a variety of mindset switches, including the following five:
- Being open to new experiences, no matter how hard they might be
- Having a mindful awareness on the present matter at hand in day-to-day life
- Allowing yourself to process feelings without clinging to them
- Making contact with core values, even on particularly stressful days
- Persevering toward goals, even in the face of setbacks
If any of those factors are things you typically have challenges with following, the best strategy for increasing your psychological flexibility is to increase your own self-awareness. “The more effective and best way to be more psychologically flexible is to do your own inner work,” says Thompson. “This could look like psychotherapy, meditation, or any other inner reflection. Or, it could simply involve taking time just for yourself and getting clear about how you feel about certain things.”