How often is it actually helpful for someone to advise you to accept a certain set of circumstances when you are still attempting to grasp what is happening? It can be very off putting, frustrating as well as invalidating.
You have to let it go! Just accept and move on!
Throughout my years as a therapist, when even broaching the topic of acceptance, I have heard many cautionary and wary responses. It has been tied to defeat, a resignation to the circumstances as well as the natural skepticism. As if it’s that easy!
So, a good question to address is how am I defining acceptance?
Acceptance in a New Light
Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a model, acceptance is a core component in being able to regulate and process our current emotional experience. Often, when we encounter unexpected situations our amygdala (or fight/flight response) will become engaged. This anxiety response, while natural, can also be cumbersome, pumping our blood with stress hormones. Depending on the situation, we can easily become overwhelmed, delaying any kind of appropriate response we would want in the moment.
Therefore, when discussing acceptance in this context, I will stress the notion that it is actually a skill. A technique that can be built upon and refined each time we encounter challenging emotions.
So how does it work?
Practicing acceptance is exemplary to the idiom, easier said than done. In theory, you could verbalize acceptance and see what that does for you but believing in what you tell yourself might be a process. Instead, let’s remove the word acceptance entirely and replace it with expansion. In the ACT model, acceptance / expansion is the result of allowing the feelings / thoughts to be. It doesn’t mean we should pursue the thoughts, but simply let them be.
Four Steps to Acceptance
Let’s view this in a practical sense. In our generic example, let’s say you so happened to receive some alarming news. Your stomach drops and your mind scrambles. Your heart thumps in your chest as the world around you blurs.
- Ground yourself back into the present moment.
This is where mindfulness is key. Understanding how anxiety works, if we let our thoughts dominate and distort our reality, then we can soon find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to respond in the best way we would want. So, instead, tune into your developing mindfulness skills. Take a few deep breaths, take account of your physical surroundings before turning inward.
- Observe the physical sensations you are experiencing.
Anxiety understandably can be intense and discomforting. Through this next step in the process, we are strengthening our tolerance to experiences like these. Anxiety can affect people differently in subtle ways. Scan your body from your head to your toes, noticing these sensations. Whether it’s a tightness in your chest or tension in your head. Focus on those sensations, observing them as if you were a scientist of your own experience.
- Create space for this experience.
Perhaps the trickiest part of the process. Especially early on, you may meet resistance as your mind comments and attempts to solve the situation. If this happens (and it will), return to observing your experience. It’s ok to acknowledge these thoughts, they are totally normal, but acceptance is all about trusting ourselves and preparing ourselves to act in the manner we want to. So as often as you need to redirect your mind, know that you’re strengthening your acceptance and tolerance of this experience. In fact, by allowing it to be, your mind will gradually become less concerned with eliminating it. Afterall, acceptance is not about changing our feelings, but accepting them!
- Allow yourself to have this experience.
Upon creating space for the experience, you now have a chance to make peace with it. Again, anxiety can be agonizing. Acceptance is not about liking an experience. It’s about not letting it govern you. At this point, the initial feelings experienced may or may not have changed. Either way, as you move through this process potentially learning new things about yourself along the way, see what it ultimately allows you to do. If you can tell yourself I may not like this, and I can manage it, are you then able to implement additional coping strategies? Only you may be able to say but consider this process as a skill. A tool for those initial situations that try to knock us off our feet.
How Acceptance Moves Us
Now that I’ve outlined a few steps at what practicing acceptance looks like, I want to highlight the utility of it. When considering the stages of grief, acceptance is often framed as the finish line. The stage where you’ve managed and moved through denial (the antithesis of acceptance), as well as anger, pain, and acceptance. We’ve all experienced grief or loss in some sense, and just because we may have had a shift away from the initial distress feelings associated with loss, doesn’t mean we no longer care about it. Acceptance is not forgetting. It is existing with it because that is the way through.
The first stage of grief is our mind’s way of attempting to cope with a shocking set of circumstances. It can be natural to initially reject what is happening in order to prevent a wave of overwhelming emotions. Acceptance is the process of understanding those emotions, but not letting them rule over us. Especially with anxiety, we may feel compelled to act, but it will be most important to act on our own terms.
After making the brave step to try something different, it is vital to reflect on what you have learned from such an experience. If you are looking for feedback and support as you practice acceptance to improve the quality of your life, then consider contacting us here at the Chicago Counseling Center. Our licensed therapists can support you with your journey of change as you find the path to higher resiliency with your mental health.