Have you ever been frustrated or worried by the “snowflake” tendencies of some in the younger generation? For example, a particular type of college student who can’t hear something challenging without being “triggered,” or a young person who wants to avoid offense at all costs? Well, it turns out – not only is that worry well-founded, but we need to gain a little humility and repent of our eye-rolling! Because many of us have similar tendencies without realizing it. Which can lead to an impact many of us have been blind to: it can directly hurt our relationships.
But it turns out – the opposite tendency can dramatically help our relationships!
Not long ago, I came across some research on a little-known trait that is crucial to happy marriages: Psychological Flexibility. In some ways, it is the diametric opposite of our (subconscious) “snowflake” tendencies. A recent study from the University of Rochester reviewed 174 other studies about marriage and discovered that all happy marriages have this one thing in common. In fact, psychological flexibility appears to be key to creating all sorts of great relationships. (Parenting, workplace, in-laws, etc.)
What IS psychological flexibility?
You probably read those words and wondered “what does that actually mean?” I did, too. And after hours of investigating to try to figure that out, I candidly think the “official” answer (and one “official” method of applying it) is complicated, esoteric and unhelpful. But I’m convinced the concept is crucial. I’ll be digging further into this in the coming months, but here’s my best attempt at a simple non-psychobabble answer and a few major things we can know and do right now to apply it.
Simply put, those that are psychologically flexible can roll with the punches of life more easily. This is all about how we handle things when difficult, challenging thoughts, emotions or experiences arise –whether that is something major (a looming health crisis), something minor (our spouse annoyingly putting the dishes in the dishwasher the “wrong way”), or something personally offensive.
The next question is . . . what does that look like in practice? And how do we gain this type of flexibility that seems to be so important?
What does that look like?
Psychologically flexible people tend to have a few common dynamics:
- They tend to not get too “triggered” by unwanted feelings and situations,
- They generally keep a bigger picture mentality, and
- They try to meet those challenges head-on.
By contrast, those that are psychologically inflexible tend to have one or all of these dynamics:
- They get wrapped up in something that is worrying or frustrating them,
- They avoid conflict, and/or
- They try to control everything.
I’m guessing all of us can see ourselves on both sides of the line. And even beat ourselves up about the ways we are over on the “inflexible” side of the line. (Or be in denial, I suppose. Who me . . . worry? Avoid conflict? Try to control everything? Nah. . . .)
The key is: how can we move more and more of our thoughts and actions back toward psychological flexibility and further and further away from damaging inflexibility?
How do we get to that healthy psychological flexibility?
Thankfully, there are many different patterns that appear to help – and I’ll be looking at the research more in the coming months to get a much more specific handle on the “how”. But in the meantime, here is a big picture overview of the basic actions that I see working:
First, be aware and honest about where you fall on all of those bullets above – both the flexible and the inflexible ones. Know specifically what those are, and you can begin to see how they show up in your life. It is only when we are blind to something that we cannot confront it well. For example, I’ve learned I have a tendency to catastrophize about what X could mean for Y in the future . . . which usually means I’m probably getting stuck in the weeds about a problem and not looking at the big picture!
Second, practice doing the flexible habits and letting go of the inflexible ones. So using my example, I’ve recently tried to be far more mindful of trying to keep a bigger-picture mentality and talk myself out of getting wrapped up with worry about it. (“OK, I’m worried that my son bombed this very crucial test . . . but just because of that, it doesn’t mean that he’ll get a bad grade in the class . . . and even if it does mean he gets a bad grade in the class, it doesn’t mean he won’t get into his top choice for a college engineering program . . . and even if it does mean he doesn’t get into that particular engineering program, it doesn’t mean he can’t be an engineer and/or won’t have an amazing career or life . . .”)
Finally, in particular, be mindful of “looking for the best.” We have seen the importance of that continuously in our research on what makes the happiest marriages, what brings us joy in difficult circumstances, and a host of other positive outcomes. It is easy to focus on the negative, but a purposeful effort to look for the best even in difficult situations yields great benefits.
All of this strongly reminds me of all that is captured by the old phrase, “Let go and let God.” I think that is just another way of describing psychological flexibility!
This article was also published at Patheos.
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