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Forget looking for the silver lining — build psychological flexibility instead

Psychological flexibility means being able to be open to experiencing whatever thoughts and feelings show up (good or bad), and persisting in service of our values. In times of change and challenge, developing this skill is more important than ever.

A man learning to sit with his emotions

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Why can’t I make my negative thoughts go away?

5 steps towards developing psychological flexibility

Grief, fear, anxiety, sadness and hopelessness. Anger. Even for the luckiest of us, 2020 brought challenges. Now that summer is here, many people are struggling to get rid of difficult, unwanted thoughts and feelings that linger. 

The truth is, absent a pandemic, we still constantly face situations and moments that challenge us and leave a mix of often unwelcome feelings. We like to think that we can “will them away” or “think them away” with logic. Yet the difficult thoughts and emotions keep returning. That’s because the way we avoid unpleasant experiences or get rid of things we don’t like in the physical world doesn’t work for our brains.

In the outside world, if something is troubling, threatening or terrifying, there are often ways to get rid of it. We can remove it, we can go somewhere else, or avoid it in the future. When it comes to thoughts and emotions, however, the more you try to get rid of them or avoid them, the more intense, bigger, and overwhelming they seem.

When it comes to thoughts and emotions, however, the more you try to get rid of them or avoid them, the more intense, bigger, and overwhelming they seem.

Trying to push away our internal experiences is like trying to push away a 2,000 lb boulder. It’s futile. The harder you try, the more exhausted you become. However, many of us are taught that having painful or troubling thoughts and feelings is problematic, or that it means there is something wrong with us. So we just try to make them go away.

That means that, if we’re feeling a lack of confidence at work, afraid to fail, overwhelmed, anxious, or angry, we identify the feeling as the problem. We believe we need to get rid of it before we can enjoy our lives. 

Pretty soon all of your time will be taken up by trying to push away these emotion or thought “boulders.” That doesn’t leave much energy for your work, your family, or anything else that’s important to you in your life. You’ll miss out on all the good things. Eventually, your entire life will become about trying to get rid of that emotion, thought, or self-evaluation that you don’t want.

You can try to escape your unwanted thoughts and feelings. But even though you may be able to temporarily distract yourself, it takes a lot of time and energy not to feel your feelings or think your thoughts. As soon you let up, they come back with a vengeance — often stronger and even more difficult to manage.

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Why can’t I make my negative thoughts go away?

The scientific term for trying to avoid your feelings and thoughts is experiential avoidance. There's a great deal of research that suggests that experiential avoidance is associated with poorer work performance and life satisfaction, as well as a host of mental health concerns like anxiety and depression

Based on how our minds work, these thoughts, feelings and self evaluations are actually more representative of where you’ve been than where you are. It's like we’re always using an operating system to understand our reality that’s at least slightly (and sometimes very much out of date) — and skewing our understanding of and ability to interact with the here and now. 

The solution is not to get rid of these thoughts, but learn to develop a different kind of relationship with them. Thoughts are just thoughts, feelings are feelings. They’re not the truth about you and your life. It's even possible to welcome and make room for them, like an unexpected guest that’s here to stay for a while. Spending your time trying to get rid of this guest or focusing on how upset you are that they are there won’t get them to leave — but it will shape your experience. What if you could focus on what’s most important to you instead? 

The goal here is to develop something called psychological flexibility. That means being able to be present, open to experiencing whatever thoughts and feelings show up (good or bad), and persisting in service of our values. This is, of course, much easier said than done. But, it’s absolutely possible to develop the skills that help us to get better at pursuing what really matters to us. 

Psychological flexibility is a core concept of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s considered the goal of ACT, and ACT researchers and practitioners have done a great deal of work to understand what it is and how to build it. ACT teaches individuals how to stay present and conscious, choosing to respond in ways that align with their values and goals.

5 steps towards developing psychological flexibility

1. Notice when you are struggling with thoughts and feelings that are not serving you well. Instead of unconsciously getting wrapped up in a battle to get rid of or avoid these thoughts and feelings, see if you can take a few minutes to stop the cycle. Can you take a moment to identify the thoughts and feelings? 

2. Ask yourself what interpretations you are making of these thoughts and feelings. “Am I troubled by the actual thought or feeling, or the meaning (or interpretation) I am making of that thought or feeling?” It’s pretty incredible how fast we can move from having a painful thought, like, “I really messed up this assignment” to “I’m a failure” to then panicking that it means our career is over and we will be out on the street. 

3. Reframe the thought — like “I’m a failure” — as a thought, nothing more. It’s not the absolute truth about you and your situation. After all, we have so many different and conflicting thoughts and feelings in the course of a day, an hour, even a moment. What if we treated thoughts and feelings like passing weather systems, instead of a reflection of ourselves? Maybe they wouldn't be so problematic, sticky, and distracting — and we wouldn’t have to get rid of them to enjoy our lives. 

4. Use this line of questioning to hold your thoughts and feelings a little more loosely. Create space between your thoughts/feelings and your immediate reactions. And, in that space, ask yourself “What is most important to me in the long term?”


5. Finally, ask yourself: “What can I do to align my actions with what’s most important to me? What can I do right now to honor that instead of reacting to the thought or feeling?” In these small moments, where you are able to make space to choose how you want to respond, you’ll find the freedom and power to live your best life, even during difficult circumstances.    

Developing these skills doesn't mean that we won’t feel pain. Emotional discomfort is a part of the human experience — and that’s okay! It does mean that we won’t have the added suffering of struggling against our experiences. Freeing yourself from the influence negative thoughts has on you doesn’t guarantee you'll be able to realize all your goals in life. However, being more in control of your response and living in alignment with your values puts us in a much better place to give it our best shot — which, in my opinion, is a pretty incredible opportunity.