6 Core Processes of Psychological Inflexibility

“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” – Lao Tzu

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses a variety of mindfulness and acceptance-based strategies, along with behavioral changes and commitment to cultivate psychological flexibility.  What does it mean to say that one is “psychologically flexible?”  In the context of ACT, a psychologically flexible individual is able to make contact with the present moment with complete consciousness and fluidly modify his behaviors in line with his chosen values.

When we are psychologically inflexible, it follows that we have greater difficulty with being fully present in our currently unfolding reality and are more rigid in our attempts to adapt our behaviors to fit both the present context and our values.  There may be a sense of living in discord with one’s values, having clouded awareness of the present moment, or feeling unable to accept what “is.”

Psychological Inflexibility

ACT Made Simple outlines 6 core processes of psychological inflexibility:

(1) Dominance of the Conceptualized Past or Future – Limited Self-Knowledge

We are “stuck” in the past by excessively ruminating on negative thoughts or painful memories just as we are equally “stuck” when we fantasize about the future or worry about what we need to do next.  In both cases, we are choosing to miss out on the present moment, which is especially tragic since it is always the present.  “Now” is all that we have.

In order to make contact with the present moment we must actively notice what is going on internally and externally. Without this contact with the present moment, we lack our full potential for self-knowledge and self-awareness.  When dwelling in the past or imagining the future, we are living in a dream – all we have contact with is this moment – right now.

(2) Cognitive Fusion

As mentioned in a previous post, when we are in a state of fusion, we are “stuck” to our thoughts, attitudes, or beliefs.  In the process of being fused in this way, we become rigid (i.e., psychologically inflexible) and out of touch with what ACT terms “the world of direct experience.”  If you find yourself having a cognitive distortion such as, “I’m a bad/stupid person” you can easily become fused to such a thought.

What sort of particular self-defeating beliefs, thoughts, or feelings do you typically engage in?  What temporary gains do you get from having these limiting beliefs?  It may seem that there is no apparent benefit to thinking of yourself as “bad” or “worthless,” but these thoughts usually do provide some type of temporary/short-term relief from anxiety or pain.  These beliefs also act as convenient diversions from having to think about the deeper truth to whatever emotions may be coming up for you.

(3) Experiential Avoidance

This is the complete opposite of acceptance.  When we choose to avoid distressing thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, or painful memories we are refusing to accept them.  In our attempts to avoid pain, there is faulty thinking that pushing painful thoughts or feelings out of awareness will somehow “make it all go away.”

Ignorance is not bliss.  Much like the beach-ball that you try to keep underwater, it keeps on bouncing up to the surface.  Many engage in experiential avoidance through self-medicating with alcohol or drugs or even excessive television or sleep.  These are all attempts to avoid short-term pain that are only creating a bigger mess to deal with in the long-term. As Carl Jung famously wrote, “What [we] resist, persists.”

(4) Attachment to the Conceptualized Self

We all have a “story.”  We tell ourselves stories about who we are, where we came from, and why we are the way that we are.  Recognize that these stories contain both objective facts and subjective facts.  These personal narratives become problematic when we become overly attached to them.  According to Harris (2009), “When we fuse with our self-description, it seems as if we are that description, that all those thoughts are the very essence of who we are: self-as-description.”

Do you see yourself as fundamentally broken/flawed, unlovable, etc. or perhaps as strong, lovable, or successful?  Try to avoid thinking of one self-image as inherently “better” than the other.  What is important is the degree to which you are fused with this self-concept.  Things change and life isn’t always predictable.  What is important is the ability to be flexible in how we see ourselves and tell our “stories.”

(5) Lack of Values Clarity/Contact

When we are fused to our thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes or frequently engage in experiential avoidance, it is not uncommon to feel lost or fearful deep down inside.  When we do not take the time to identify our values and mold our behaviors to be in line with those values, we miss out on the opportunity to use our values as a guide or compass for our actions.

Imagine your underlying motivation for waking up in the morning and going to work for a moment.  Is it motivated by fusion with self-limiting beliefs such as “I hate my job, but it’s all I’m capable of?”  Is it motivated by experiential avoidance, indicated by going to work to avoid “feeling like a loser” or to avoid tension at home?  Instead, imagine how your experience would be different if your purpose was driven instead by your values – contributing to others, developing the self, or being a meaningful part of a team.

(6) Unworkable Action

These are patterns of behavior that pull us away from mindful, valued living – behaviors that only serve to keep us stuck in self-defeating patterns or increase our struggles.  When we choose to act in ways that reactive, impulsive, or automatic, we are taking a step away from present-focused, intention-based, mindful living.

Some examples of unworkable action include choosing to withdraw socially, be inactive, avoiding previously enjoyable activities, excessively using drugs or alcohol, or even attempting suicide.  These are all behaviors that allow us to “check out” from the present moment and “stay stuck” in patterns that, while familiar, are known to be self-defeating or self-destructive.

Do you notice any themes to the ways in which you exhibit one or more of these core processes of psychological inflexibility?  What benefits do you think you are getting from your personal pattern(s) of psychological inflexibility?  We are all works in progress, and just making the choice to begin to increase your awareness of personal tendencies is a pivotal step in the right direction.  How can you begin to practice mindful values-based living?

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Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: espejo by A6U571N / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. Heidi on August 26, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    I definitely have a huge problem with psychological inflexibility. This info resonated with me as something that could change my life if I work on it. What are some small steps to take to progress? If I get overwhelmed, I may give up and I do want to improve.

  2. janet on September 24, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    Yes, please expand upon this subject and how to help oneself!

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