May 15, 2024

Why Can’t I Change? How Flexibility Might Be the Key to Getting Unstuck (Part 2)

We can thrive by flexibly facing change, rather than avoiding it. This post is Part 2 of a two-part series.

Part 1 of this post discusses why change is difficult and how we need to cultivate psychological flexibility to grow into our values rather than be stuck in our current patterns.

Practices to Build Psychological Flexibility 

Psychological flexibility can be understood as “the ability to act mindfully, guided by our values” (Harris, 2019, p.8). According to the psychological flexibility model of human functioning and adaptability developed by Steven Hays, being psychologically flexible involves the following practices: 

  • openness to the full experience of being human, 
  • not overly identifying with thoughts or emotions, 
  • mindfully being present with flexible attention, 
  • knowing what matters, and doing what it takes. 

Hays distills these practices down into three core responses to change and challenging life circumstances – being open, centered, and engaged. How we respond to change is directly connected to how we cultivate adaptive practices of psychological flexibility and how we view ourselves in the process.

Practicing Openness: 

Being open requires us to accept emotions and thoughts as they come, without overly identifying with them. They are a part of our experience, but they do not define us. In times of change or when faced with the unexpected, our brains often try to categorize inconsistent or new information until it makes sense (sometimes by comparing information to past experiences and trying to predict what will happen in the future, which is not always helpful, or accurate). We cling tightly to these thoughts or feelings by worrying and ruminating, or we try to avoid them by engaging in self-defeating behaviors like overeating, drinking, doom scrolling, etc. It’s as if we are clenching our fist so tightly around a thought or feeling, we don’t allow ourselves to be open to any other ways of thinking or feeling.  

First, we have to release our grip to allow our thoughts and feelings to be a part of our experiences, but not consume us. We can learn to make room for them, without fighting them or avoiding them. For example, I struggled with feeling inadequate, and I did not want to face it when I considered going back to school. I had to learn to release my grip on trying to hide that feeling, open up and allow that feeling to be a part of my experience. That’s just part of being human! From there, I was open to consider other thoughts and feelings that moved me toward the change I actually wanted. 

Being Present and Centered: 

When we fixate or ruminate on problems or limitations, it’s like holding a sheet of paper with a running list of these items in front of our face. It’s all we can see when we think about change or whether we can handle change; we miss out on seeing and experiencing the people, opportunities, and resources that are available to us in this present moment. We can even lose touch with ourselves and miss out on living connected to our values. Rather than limiting ourselves, we have the option to lower this list and allow our concerns to be present, without obstructing our view of what matters. 

To practice being present and centered, we learn to acknowledge our inner experience (that list is still here, and all the feelings that go along with it – we can name that!). Then, we come back to our body in the present moment by noticing our current posture, releasing any tension, and taking a long slow sigh to alter our breath. (For a useful body based practice, click here.) By noticing our five senses, we can re-engage our attention with the world around us, and are more regulated and receptive to face change. When I was able to recognize that I was beginning to live more distracted, disengaged, and disconnected from what I valued (e.g., working long hours at jobs I didn’t care about and doing things mindlessly like I was on autopilot), I gradually learned to be more present with myself, pay attention to my surroundings, and notice aspects of my life that deserved a little more kindness and care. 

Engaged & Doing what Matters

Identifying values requires reflection on what matters most to you. We can get consumed in navigating our daily lives to the extent that we forget to check in with ourselves and ask whether how we respond to change is moving us toward the life we want to live, the person we want to be. 

Take some time to ask yourself: 

  • What are three overarching personal qualities or strengths that paint a picture of you being fully yourself, living like the person you want to be?
  • How can I face this change with these values in mind? 

Sometimes we can identify our values by being curious about our pain, challenges, and strengths. 

Questions to consider asking yourself include: 

  • What does this fear/worry/anxiety tell me about what matters to me? How can this pain help me learn and develop new skills/strengths? Is this an invitation to better relate to or connect with others? 
  • What strengths and qualities do I already possess, and which ones would I like to further develop? Is there anyone I look up to who embodies these qualities? What do they stand for? What inspires me? 

Doing what matters requires committed action that is in line with what we value. It requires flexibility and being adaptable to face challenges and unexpected changes along the way. This involves identifying manageable goals, action planning, learning new skills, and taking action! For me, I had to believe that I was capable of utilizing resources to support me in my quest to return to school (and all the changes that would bring). I sought a mentor, worked with a therapist, and asked other women about their experiences returning to higher education after working other careers. It required many steps along the way, but started with being committed to my values of curiosity, justice, and courage. 

Examples of common values include authenticity, honesty, kindness, assertiveness, being compassionate (toward self & others), friendliness, fairness/equity/justice, skillfulness, etc.  Click here for a practice to help identify your values in order to engage with them meaningfully.

On a daily basis, practice paying attention to whether you are moving toward or away from your identified values. 

A simplified practice I have implemented is to notice whether my actions are in line with my value of balancing work and rest

Is it actually restful to doom scroll on social media, or does it sometimes leave me feeling more inactive and stressed? In comparison, I notice when I intentionally read poetry as a means of rest from work, I feel refreshed and connected to a sense of creativity, which I also value. It’s a small shift to read poetry instead of scrolling on my phone, but it takes intentional awareness and committed action for me to do so. 

Facing change is a challenge, and sometimes the end goal feels entirely out of reach (like I felt when I considered ever going to graduate school!). By practicing being open, centered, and engaged, I have learned to allow the fullness of my human experience to exist (including the occasional feelings of inadequacy and the fears of the unknown) while I continue to mindfully engage in doing the next thing that matters… like read poetry 😉 

Though your destination is not yet clear

You can trust the promise of this opening;

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning

That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

John O’Donohue 


References / Additional Information:
Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Hayes, S.C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. Guilford Press. 
Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.
O’Donohue, J. (2008). To bless the space between us: A book of blessings. Convergent Books.
Van Kampen, H. S. (2019). The principle of consistency and the cause and function of behaviour. Behavioural processes, 159, 42-54.
Lauren Van Vranken Thrive Fellow


Continue Exploring


Why Can’t I Change? How Flexibility Might Be the Key to Getting Unstuck (Part 1)


A Practice: Values-Based Living


A Practice: Observing the Body for Understanding

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