I’ve been wrestling with a few of these questions recently after reading something on social media demonizing Starbucks for a drink being too hot. I wondered to myself where that frustration would come from (besides the obvious fact no one likes to get burned and getting burned is enough for most to get royally pissed off).
The answer I came up with was expectations and it had me thinking about my own and how those expectations influence what I experience. This also led me to the idea of psychological rigidity as described in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) literature (behavior consisting of responses from past conditioning to current stimuli, or more simply an insensitivity to context) and a realization that rigidity exists on both ends of the spectrum.
In practice I see many people stuck on “the other shoe is going to drop any minute” side of the spectrum quite often, not trusting positive outcomes and doubting the validity of what may be going well in their lives. This rigidity isn’t too difficult to identify when it shows up and may be the common association when we are looking for areas to increase psychological flexibility, but I’m also wondering about the other side of the spectrum and if those reactions may be less obvious.
The other side could consist of the types of expectations that show up around entitlement, privilege, and self-absorption. The beliefs that all things should work out all the time. The idea that the server at Starbucks should get the temperature exactly right every time you order a drink. The belief that no one should ever let us down or act in ways that seems to increase our own psychological pain and distress. These expectations can become equally rigid in nature if they are applied to all situations and circumstances.
The question becomes what do we expect out of life? Do we expect to move toward our values, toward what really matters, toward personal growth and for things to go smoothly the entire time? If so, I’m not sure moving toward those things is possible. Do we expect that as we extend trust in relationships and take chances we won’t do that with the risk that we could feel hurt, rejected, or let down along the way? Do we expect to call the shots in life, to dictate how things will be and to determine what about this human experience we will and won’t accept?
ACT offers a way out of this rigidity, a way to bring flexibility to our expectations in a powerful way and the processes found within ACT lend themselves to approaching life in a softer, more fluid manner, rolling with the ever-changing dynamic of life and the fluctuation of the human experience. There may be times to prepare for what could be threatening in the future, and there may be times when we need to stick up for ourselves, establish boundaries, and express our needs clearly. The point is it shouldn’t have to be one way or the other all the time. We need freedom to allow for things that are out of our control as well as freedom to advocate for ourselves, and the freedom that comes from being able to move with flexibility from one stance to another based on circumstance.
Life happens. It shows up in all kinds of unpredictable ways that we are often times unprepared for. Sometimes it’s scary and painful, sometimes awe-filled and wondrous, sometimes boring and mundane. Every now and then we get burned by our coffee, which hurts don’t get me wrong, but the suffering that comes after that burn is up to us. Do we feed the story line that all things should work out in our favor in that moment? Is that the most functional stance to take that guides us toward relief and connection with how we want to show up in the world, or would it be beneficial to inject some compassion into the perspective? Yeah it sucks to get burned by hot coffee! Anger makes sense in that moment as well as strong reactions of aggression. It also makes sense that we are burned from time to time, that things, people, and even Starbucks lets us down.
Psychological flexibility, as defined by ACT, means contacting the present moment fully as a conscious, historical human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values. Psychological flexibility is a way to look at any circumstance in our lives and ask questions about ourselves and our experience that reduce the potential to amplify our suffering. In relation to our ability to practice psychological flexibility the ACT model asks this question:
Given a distinction between you and the stuff you are struggling with and trying to change are you willing to have that stuff, fully and without defense as it is, and not as what it says it is AND do what takes you in the direction of your chosen values at this time, in this situation?