Psychological Rigidity: Why It Presents and the Benefits of Being Psychologically Flexible

If I asked you to think of the word “flexible” what comes to mind? Are you touching your toes? Doing a split? In a yoga class doing downward dog? More than likely you are thinking of examples of PHYSICAL flexibility. Most people know the importance of becoming and remaining physically flexible. But surprisingly very few individuals understand the importance of working on their psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the cornerstone to healthy, stable living. Any extreme form of thinking or behaving is a big red flag of a deeper issue to mental health professionals. Psychological rigidity is a growing problem in our society and tends to present in people who have personality disorders (or traits thereof). In counseling, rigidity refers to an obstinate inability to yield or a refusal to appreciate another person’s viewpoint or emotions characterized by a lack of empathy. If you cannot empathize or relate to another person’s point of view this may be something to speak with a professional counselor about as empathy is the cornerstone of healthy interpersonal relationships. Lack of empathy is HUGE red flag that presents when diagnosing personality disorders. Another tell-tale sign of a personality disorder is the tendency to perseverate, which is the inability to change habits and the inability to modify concepts and attitudes once developed.  These personality types are rigid, stubborn people.  They can talk about something over and over sometimes for YEARS on end.  You may be in their company and find them talking about the same person OR same issue ad nauseam. In assessing clients for different psychological disorders, polarized thinking and behavior are two ways therapists can uncover a client’s true self, which oftentimes a client is strongly inclined to hide.

These personality disorders have traits that any well-trained therapists can pick up on right away even if the client is working hard to put on a facade and fool the clinician. These people give themselves away to knowing therapists, however, precisely because their behavior is so polarized  – characterized by a combination of extremeness and inflexibility. They act as if they absolutely must act a certain way all the time even when external circumstances would seem to require a something entirely different.

Being flexible is important in maintaining relationships. People change, circumstances change, life is fluid. People move, get married, have kids, change careers, get sick, retire,pass away.  Life is constantly requiring us to adapt. Psychologically rigid people resist change at the expense of their relationships and well-being.  Being psychologically flexible is important within the context of  strong, enduring relationships, but is also important for healthy functioning. If you want to be in a long-term relationship or marriage, balancing the wants and needs of a partner along with one’s own interests requires compromise and the ability to adapt; both of which require flexibility. When conflict occurs, the level of flexibility that exists between a couple is tested. People with personality disorders are hard to maintain friendships or family relations with let alone romantic relationships. Oftentimes the only way a personality disordered person can maintain a romantic relationship is to be with another disordered individual. Personality disorders exist when these traits become so pronounced, rigid, and maladaptive that they impair work and/or interpersonal functioning. In seeing how people react to stress and conflict, one can see a personality disorder come out in its extreme form. The mask tends to totally drop and a person’s true character shines through.  People with personality disorders tend to escalate rather than deescalate conflicts. Voices are raised, curse words are spoken, insults are thrown,  and any sense of civility falls by the wayside. A person with a personality disorder causes extreme distress for those people around them—they refuse to bend, refuse to be reasoned with, refuse to budge an inch. These people have difficulty knowing the boundaries between themselves and others. Healthy personalities are flexible enough to account for these differences and respond accordingly. People with personality disorders refuse to adapt. If they are told not to do something, they will do something again just to make a point. These are very child like individuals. They will fight to the point of self-destruction.  Personality disordered individuals attempt to navigate the world with a rigid, inflexible approach.

There approach is considered maladaptive because it leads to distress, dissatisfaction, and failure. These unfortunate folks frequently experience stormy relationships and repeatedly find themselves in situations that lead to their unhappiness and lack of success.

Of course, we ALL have our issues, conflicts, and adversities that may cause us to be dissatisfied and upset. We don’t behave well all the time. Sometimes we annoy other people. We may be hurtful in a heated moment. But for many of us, this is an anomaly not our pattern of behavior. Perhaps you may be reading the traits of the aforementioned personality disorders and thinking yikes this sounds like ME. Don’t worry–in the perfect storm with an extremely difficult, toxic person we can all BE rigid and inflexible in defending yourself from their wrath. For personality disordered individuals this a pattern of behavior across the lifespan.

In other words, some storms are inevitable and some detours are difficult to resist for ALL of us.  However, in diagnosing a personality disorder, we are looking at the overall behavior of a person. A healthy person will disengage from unhealthy relationships while a person with a personality disorder will want to scream, yell, and fight it out until they are the last man (or woman) standing.

People who have personality disorders can express a wide range of emotions and behaviors that are considered detrimental to relationships, causing friends and family to withdraw from the individual. It is hard to be close and intimate with someone with a disordered personality. People with personality disorders cannot see the forest from the tree. These people have to win, have to be right, have to get their way. Their psychological inflexibility is constantly shining through in their words, thoughts, and opinions. A person with a personality disorder with have a history of problematic behaviors and traits, starting early in life, observed across many different situations, over a long period of time, with different people, that cause significant distress. As you can imagine, these are not the most likeable of people. Nevertheless, we all can have traits or behaviors of the psychologically inflexible from time to time. We can all work on bettering the way we function in life and in our relationships. Even if you a relatively healthy functioning individual, increasing your psychological flexibility will cultivate more peace and joy in your life and relationships. Below are some suggestions for growth.

Simple Ways to Increase Your Psychological Flexibility

  1. Get out of your comfort zone. It will make you happier and more fulfilled. Happier, satisfied people tend to go with the flow of life. When I think of the word rigid I do not think of “happiness.” In order to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, you need to first step out of your comfort zone. The less you need life to be a certain way, the happier you will be. In turn, the happier and healthier your relationships will be.
  2. Exercise. This one is self-explanatory.
  3. Learn and do something new. Inflexible people hate change of any sort. Routine is their friend. Travel to new places. Meet new people. Try new foods. Explore new hobbies. Don’t get trapped into the same monotonous routine.
  4. Meditate. I just wrote a post on the benefits of meditating and take yourself less seriously (ie being psychologically flexible). As a clinician, I find the most miserable clients are the most rigid and are literally STUCK (psychologically).
  5. See things as they are, but not worse than they are. Keep things in perspective. People with disordered personalities struggle to look at the big picture.
  6. Keep your mind stimulated every day.
  7. Seek counseling.
Just remember, psychological flexibility is at the heart (and in the head) of good mental health and resilience for all of us. And mental health is JUST as important as physical health. If you enjoyed this article and are interested in seeking counseling with me: Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC


590 Franklin Ave. Suite 2 Nutley, NJ 07110 973-963-7485

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