“My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations” –Michael J. Fox
Although acceptance is the namesake and one of the main premises of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it can be a difficult concept to understand and an even more challenging one to put into practice.
There are many misconceptions about acceptance. When we speak of acceptance, we do not mean liking or wanting something that we are struggling with. It also does not mean resigning or giving up on trying to improve a situation. Rather, acceptance means taking a stance that is fully open to experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Our minds do not seem to come innately wired for acceptance. More often than not, we find ourselves struggling with difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Almost all of us have some version of a “not good enough” story. We may compare ourselves to others in terms of wealth, attractiveness, status, or achievements and wonder why we do not stack up. This can then lead to struggle, and attempting to cope with the struggle by doing things that do not bring us closer to achieving these ideals.
For example, one may have the thought “I wish I was as attractive as them” which then leads to feelings of shame, guilt, frustration, or sadness. The individual may struggle more with those feelings, and then try to alleviate some of the pain through distraction techniques such as television or overeating. Unfortunately, these strategies are unlikely to rid the individual of the feeling forever, and they are likely to produce further feelings of frustration, sadness, and shame. This can lead to further distraction techniques, which then becomes a cycle of struggle.
Acceptance offers us an alternative to feeling caught in a battle with our own mind. When we choose to accept a thought, feeling, or sensation, we are acknowledging that sensation and allowing its presence – even if it is unpleasant for us to do so. It is greeting the feeling with open arms; even if it is not something we want, with the knowledge that it is normal and natural to have this feeling. It is meeting the feeling with compassion, noticing that we hurt where we care, and this is a feeling that is telling us something is important to us.
So how do we do this? The first step is to notice the thoughts, feelings, or sensations you may be struggling with. What is it? Notice where you feel this struggle – how does it show up as a sensation in your body? Do you feel a tightening in your chest? A knot in your stomach? A lump in your throat? Notice what your urge to do is when this sensation shows up. Do you have the urge to run, and not confront it? The urge to watch television, or have a snack? The urge to yell, or tell somebody off? Notice if these urges bring you closer to the person you would like to be, or take you away from them. Finally, you may ask yourself: Is it possible to sit with these sensations and allow them to be there while refraining from acting on the urges?
We may find that acceptance is easier with some thoughts or sensations, and more difficult with others. There may be times when acceptance comes easy to us, and we welcome thoughts and feelings with open arms. Then there may be other times when we notice we are in a struggle, but cannot seem to find the will to accept. Accept this. The more we accept, the more we can notice thoughts that hook us and the urges that come from the thoughts, without acting on those urges. The more we utilize acceptance, the more we may have compassion for ourselves and for others who are struggling.