This article is part of a series on accepting difficult emotions. I hope that this series will contribute to understanding and accepting some of the more challenging aspects of the shared human experience.
Article One: Acceptance
We all want to be in control of our lives and our destinies.
Sometimes that is not possible.
You will have to be around in-laws, bosses, acquaintances that you dislike. Responsibilities that you cannot avoid will pile up. Your emotions are going to get stuck in anger, sadness, fear, disgust, and boredom. Good things in your life will not last forever. Even the people and places that you hold most dearly will not persist. The question becomes:
What do you do when there is nothing you can do to change something?
The Japanese Zen master Shunyru Suzuki made an observation that may help. Cattle, when they are close to fences, will destroy the barriers. When they are far from the fences, they will gather together. Our thoughts/emotions are not much different than cattle; if we allow them to be there, they become ordered if we try to suppress them, hem them in, or not have them at all, they will become unruly. Accepting emotions, events, and thoughts can help us cope with the things we cannot change.
Why might you accept?
-You cannot change things that have happened in the past; they have already happened. There is nothing you can do about the past, and the more you struggle against past events, the more powerful they can become.
-You cannot easily change the emotional experience you are having in a moment. Change mechanisms work well when dealing with the external world but do not always work well with internal experience.
-Grief and loss are an unavoidable part of the human experience
How do you accept?
- Notice the parts of yourself that are fighting reality and invite them to step aside. You may have never tried to do this, but it is an action that is possible. Some people describe that this action feels like unclenching your fist. Practicing mindfulness can improve your skill in acceptance and make the action of acceptance automatic and less effortful.
- Notice the thought, sensation, or image that is preventing you from accepting. Particularly notice that the thought, feeling, or image preventing you from accepting is not the thing itself. For example, your anger at someone slighting you is not the person that slighted you or the action that slighted you. Labeling the experience as a thought, memory, or image can help people distance themselves from these experiences.
- Recognize what you can and cannot change. This is famously part of the serenity prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Ending efforts to control the things you cannot change will reduce time, energy, and sometimes money spent on denying reality.
- Practice radical acceptance. Radical acceptance involves throwing yourself into acceptance with your entire body and mind. This means using all your resources to come to terms with what is happening, which could mean using your self-talk, contacting your values, stopping the struggle, contacting the present moment, or any combination of the acceptance skills described in this article. Many times when we are faced with intense emotions, we feel helpless and stop coping. Actively putting energy into acceptance can become a powerful means of coping.
- Contact the present moment fully. Often the things that bother us are in the past and the future. Noticing you are safe now can help with memories from the past that make us feel anxious. Similarly, thinking about all the threats in the future can ruin our day even when things at the moment are going well. Thinking about the past can be depressing because we cannot change it, and the future is always uncertain. The present moment, even if unpleasant, has a solidity to it that we can use to foster acceptance.
- Stop suppressing the emotions. It can be tempting when negative emotions arise to try not to feel negative or strong emotions; no one likes them! The more we suppress any emotion, however, the more we dull our experience of the world. Research has shown that suppressing negative emotions reduces our perception of positive emotions!
Linehan, M. M. (2018). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. Guilford Publications.
Orsillo, S. M., Roemer, L., Block-Lerner, J., LeJeune, C., & Herbert, J. D. (2004). ACT with anxiety disorders. In A practical guide to acceptance and commitment therapy (pp. 103-132). Springer, Boston, MA.
Suzuki, S. (2020). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Shambhala Publications.
By: Christopher Grandits, PhD