“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” – Carl Jung
Mindfulness-based therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) infuse the concept of acceptance throughout treatment. The idea behind acceptance is the notion of surrendering and opening yourself up to all aspects of your internal and external experience in their entirety. This means being willing to fully accept painful, joyous, and neutral experiences. When you make the choice (consciously or otherwise) to shut yourself off from the painful experiences and only open yourself up to joy, you are living a part of your life in denial. When you deny all pain and only accept joy, you are also missing out on the full range of emotional experiences that makes human life unique.
Acceptance Releases Suffering
The curious part about denying painful thoughts, emotions, and experiences is that denial does not make them “go away.” The pain will sit patiently and wait until you pull your head back out of the sand to face it. If pain does temporarily “disappear,” it often reemerges in another form until it is accepted and handled. While the idea of facing painful experiences is understandably frightening, meeting all aspects of your life with open eyes and open arms is the way to move through the pain.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses many metaphors to describe the self-imposed suffering that is created through fusion to or denial of thoughts. Imagine your painful thoughts and emotions as a heavy boulder. When you are attached to those painful thoughts and emotions, it is like dragging that heavy boulder wherever you go. Imagine how your experience with thoughts and feelings that you wish to deny would be different if instead of dragging them behind you, you just picked up that boulder and held it tightly against you.
Embracing Your Pain with Acceptance
This is the acceptance-based idea of fully embracing your pain, rather than trying to escape it or deny it. It doesn’t have to be a struggle to handle the inevitable pain of life if you choose to approach that pain in a different way. Another way to think about accepting those painful thoughts and feelings is to notice the heavy boulder sitting there and choose to not pick it up. Notice that this is not the same thing as denying the reality of your pain… it is noticing it with your mindful observing self, accepting its presence, and not getting fused or attached to it by “picking it up.”
Harris (2009) explains that acceptance means:
- Allowing your thoughts and feelings to “be” just as they are
- Opening yourself up and making room for all thoughts, feelings, and sensations (painful, pleasant, or neutral)
- Letting thoughts and feelings come and go as they naturally do, with no attempts to change them or rush them along
- Making full and open contact with wanted and unwanted psychological experiences
Recognize that “acceptance” does not mean “approval.” Just because you choose to open yourself up to painful thoughts, emotions, and experiences, that does not mean that you are condoning them or approving of them. It simply means that you recognize their presence with mindful awareness, openness, and curiosity. You are no longer fighting against “what is.” You accept it.
How would your experience with painful thoughts and emotions be different if you made the choice to stop fighting their presence and instead allowed them to “be.” When you welcome all aspects of your experience, you may discover the pleasant surprise that once you welcome your pain to the proverbial “table,” it will decide on its own not to stick around for very long. It is when you deny or fight against your pain that it becomes just as stubborn as you, deciding to stick around until you acknowledge it and handle it through acceptance and problem-solving.
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Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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