The following is the transcript of psychologist Steven Hayes’ TEDx Talk: Psychological flexibility How Love Turns Pain into Purpose at TEDxUniversityofNevada.
Steven Hayes – Professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada
Life asks us questions. And probably one of the most important questions it asks us is, “What are you going to do about difficult thoughts and feelings?”
If you’re feeling ashamed or anxious, life just asked you a question. If you’re standing here about to give a TED talk and your mind is getting very chattery, what are you going to do about that? Good question.
And the answer to that question and ones like it say a lot about the trajectories of our lives whether or not they’re going to unfold in a positive way that moves towards prosperity, love, freedom, contribution, or downward, into pathology and despair.
And I’m here to make the argument that you have within you a great answer to that question or at least the seed of it. But, you also have this arrogant, storytelling, problem solving, analytic, judgmental mind between your ears that doesn’t have the answer and is constantly tempting you into taking the wrong direction.
My name is Steve Hayes and for the last 30 years, I and my colleagues have been studying a small set of psychological processes — fancy words for things people do — called psychological flexibility. It’s a set of answers to that question.
And in more than a thousand studies, we’ve shown that psychological flexibility predicts: are you going to develop a mental health problem anxiety, depression, trauma? If you have one it predicts, later on will you have two? It predicts how severe they are, how chronic they’ll be.
But, not just that, it predicts all kinds of other things that are important to us even though it’s not psychopathology. Such as, what kind of parent are you going to be? What kind of worker are you going to be? Can you step up to the behavioral challenges of physical disease? Can you stick to your exercise program? Everywhere that human minds go, psychological flexibility is relevant.
And what I want to do in this talk is to walk you through the science of psychological flexibility, because we’ve learned how to change these processes in several hundred studies using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, but not just ACT, related methods that target flexibility we’ve shown that we can change it and when we change it, those life trajectories that are negative go positive with outcomes in all the areas that I just mentioned and many more.
So, I want to walk you through what the elements of psychological flexibility and what they are. And I’m going to take you back to a moment in my life 34 years ago where I first turned powerfully in their direction. Decades ago.
Thirty-four years ago at 2 in the morning on a brown and gold shag carpet with my body almost literally in this posture, and my mind for sure in this posture. I had for two to three years been spiraling down into the hell of panic disorder. It began in a horrific department meeting where I was forced to watch full professors fight in a way that only wild animals and full professors are capable of.
And all I wanted to do was to beg them to stop, but instead I had my first panic attack, and by the time they called on me, I couldn’t even make a sound come out of my mouth. And in the shock, and the horror, and embarrassment of that first and public panic attack, I did all of the logical, reasonable, sensible, and pathological things your mind tells you to do. I tried to run from anxiety; I tried to fight with anxiety; and I tried to hide from anxiety. I sat next to the door. I watched its coming. I argued my way out of it. I took the tranquilizers and as I did all those things, the panic attacks increased in frequency and in intensity. First at work, but then while traveling, and then in restaurants, and then in movie theaters, and then in elevators, and then on phone calls, and then in the safety of home, and finally even being awakened at two in the morning from a dead sleep already in a panic attack.
But, this night on that brown and gold shag carpet, this night, as I watched with anxiety waves, my body’s sensations was different. This night was even more horrifying, but it was somehow satisfying, because I wasn’t having a panic attack. I was dying of a heart attack. I had all the evidence for it. I had the weight in the chest. I had the shooting pains down my arm. I was sweating profusely. My heart was racing and skipping beats wildly. And that same spider voice that came up and said, “You’ve got to run. You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to hide from anxiety,” was now telling me, “Make the call. You can’t drive in this condition. You’re dying. Call the emergency room. Call the ambulance. This is not a joke. Make the call.”
And yet, minute after minute went by and I didn’t make the call. And I had a sense of leaving my body and looking back at myself there and I imagined what would happen if I did make that call. Like a series of scenes, little snippets like in a movie trailer, like when you go to the theater for the upcoming film — I could hear the sound of the emergency responders coming up the stairs, the pounding on the thin hollow door, the ride in the ambulance, the tubes and wires, the concerned look on the faces of the nurses as I went into the emergency room, and then finally the last little snippet, the last little scene in this movie trailer, where I suddenly realized what this movie was going to be about.
And I looked at it and I said, “Oh, please, God, not that. Please, please.”
Because that final scene, lying on the gurney in the emergency room, here came a young doctor in my mind’s eye walking entirely too casually. And as he got close to me, I could see there was a smirk on his face, and I knew what was coming.
He got close and he said, “Dr. Hayes, you’re not having a heart attack,” and then the smirk broadened, “You’re having a panic attack.” And I knew that was true. This was just another level down of hell.
And a scream came out of my mouth, a weird breathly, strange sounding thing. It sounded just like this. [Screams]
And as I bounced off the bottom, another door opened. I don’t know how long it was, but it was a few minutes later from a rarely visited, but deeply me part of me, the part of me that’s behind your eyes, a more spiritual part, from my very soul, if you want to say it that way, words came out. I’m pretty sure. I said it out loud to no one at two in the morning. I said, “I don’t know who you are, but apparently, you can make me hurt. You can make me suffer. But I’ll tell you one thing you cannot do. You can’t make me turn from my own experience. You can’t do it.”
And my then much younger body ached as it stood up, and I could tell from the dried and burning tracks of tears on my face that I had been there a very long time. But, I stood up inside a promise. “Never again. I will not run from me.” I did not know how to keep that promise. To be honest, I’m still learning. I had no idea how to bring that promise into the lives of others. I would learn that only in the work that we would do in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, and that was ahead of me.
But, in those 34 years, not a single day has gone by where I didn’t remember that promise. And when you stand here like this, the way you know already is the wiser place to stand with pain and suffering, things start happening. I can put it into words now what the science shows, what this posture is. It’s emotional openness. We’re going to feel what’s there to be felt even when it’s hard. It’s being able to look at your thoughts, not just from your thoughts. So, when you’re thinking they’re not just like this, so you can’t see anything else, you can notice them out there. It’s connecting with this more spiritual part of you and from there being able to direct your attention flexibly, fluidly, voluntarily towards what’s there to be focused on.
And when you see something of importance, to be able to move towards it with your hands and arms free so that you can feel, and do, and contribute, and participate. That’s psychological flexibility. And it builds on what that seed is that you know because if you put this into a word, I think you can see why this would be the word, the single word I would say is, ‘Love’.
When you stand with yourself in a self-compassionate, kind, loving way, life opens up and then you can turn towards meaning and purpose and how you bring love, participation, beauty, contribution, into the lives of others.
I didn’t see at first that this pivot towards pain and suffering actually was glued at the hip to this pivot towards meaning and purpose. I didn’t see that at first. But I started seeing it in my clients as I began to do the ACT work. I started seeing it in my own life. And just a few years in, it hit me very powerfully.
By then, I had done a few randomized trials on ACT and I was beginning to do trainings, moving around, meeting with smaller groups of clinicians, teaching about the work we’re doing. And I was doing a workshop and I had these waves of anxiety, which was totally normal. Still today, I will get anxious during talks. That was fine. I’m open for that. Come on. It’s cool.
But then another wave came. I suddenly felt as though I was going to sob in front of those clinicians, that I was going to weep uncontrollably. I said, “What?” The moment passed and I did the workshop. Didn’t think about it again until the next workshop, same exact thing happened. And this time I had the presence of mind to notice I felt very young.
And I asked myself, even as I was doing the workshop, “How old are you?”
And the answer came back, “8 or 9.”
And then, a memory flipped by that I hadn’t thought of since it happened, when I was 8 or 9. I didn’t have time to unpack it in the workshop, but that night in the hotel I did.
I was underneath my bed, listening to my parents fight in the other room. My dad had come home drunk and late again. And my mother was ripping into him about him spending the meager family funds on his addiction; about his inadequacies as a husband and as a father. And he was saying, “Shut up! You better shut up or else!” and I knew his fists were clenched.
And then I heard a horrific crash and my mother screaming. I would find out only later it was the coffee table going across the living room. And I’m thinking, “Is there going to be blood? Is he hitting her?”
And then, my little boy mind gave me these words very clearly, “I’m going to do something.” And I realized there was nothing for me to do, nothing safe.
So, I scooted back farther and I held myself and cried. You get it?
I’m sitting there, watching those old bulls fight in the psychology department and yeah, I’m horrified, and yeah, I’m feeling anxious. But really what I would like to do is just to cry — in the department of psychology? Really? But, I didn’t have access to him. I didn’t have room for him. He is why I’m a psychologist, but I didn’t even know it.
And I got caught up in the articles, in the vita, in the grants, and the achievement. Woo hoo! But, I came here because he asked me to. To ‘do something’. And instead, what I told him was tantamount to leading down and saying, “Just be quiet. Go away. Shut up,” when I ran, and I fought, and I hid. It was so unkind and so unloving. To who? To me, and the parts of me that connect me even with my life’s purpose.
Because we hurt where we care and we care where we hurt. These two pivots, these two “turning towards” are the same thing. When you stand with yourself, even when it’s hard, you’re doing a loving thing for yourself and out of that then you can afford the risk of turning towards bringing love into the world, beauty into the world, communication, contribution into the world. And seeing that, I made another promise. Never again, I will not push you away, nor your message to me about our purpose. I’m not going to ask you to give the workshop, or do the TED talk either, but I want you here with me because you soften me. You make sense of why my life is about this.
And so, my message to you is to look at the science of psychological flexibility, yeah, but look at how it can inform what you already know, which is bringing love to yourself even when it’s hard will help you bring love into the world in the way that you want to bring it into the world. And that’s important. You know it. Your crying little 8 year olds in you know it.
We all know it. Because love isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
Thank you. I hope I’ve been useful to you.