The Acceptance Struggle
on wanting to feel different & not giving up
One thing I've noticed in hearing people reflect on therapy experiences is frustration with the idea of acceptance. After all, folks often start therapy wanting to feel different. This makes sense when you're consistently feeling anxious, exhausted and struggling. Being immobilized by anxiety, and other feelings, feels crappy.
What people often experience is that when abandoning the fight with our feelings is recommended, they feel discouraged. They don't want to keep having these crappy feelings! More than once I've had friends and family respond to my sharing that I practice Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) that acceptance feels like giving up. I want to reflect on what acceptance is and what it is not.
First of all, acceptance is freakin' challenging. It's not typically as easy as a passive, "yeah, okay, I'm open to my feelings now." We get bombarded with messages about how we should feel all the freakin' time, that pleasant emotions are the only valuable emotions. This message is, frankly, unhelpful for mammals equipped with the whole gammut of feelings. It also makes it darn challenging to actually allow ourselves to feel our feelings. Shutting them down is societally encouraged from well-meaning friends who respond to heartbreak with, "don't be sad," to the less supportive messages, "no one wants to hear that." The result of having a "good vibes only" personal vendetta against your range of human experiences (which includes all the emotions) is that you end up struggling with the feelings themselves. One example might be that when sadness comes up, if you don't accept sadness as an acceptable experience, you may find not only are you sad, but you're angry that you're sad. You might be sad that you're anxious, frustrated that you're lonely. Feeling sad, anxious, lonely, frustrated: none of these are failings. They are normal parts of being human. Accepting experiences reduces the struggle with them.
But I can't function when I'm depressed, anxious, frustrated, jealous (etc)!
I don't want my feelings to be running my life!
Acceptance doesn't mean that your internal experiences run the show. We know what that looks like. When depression and anxiety are running the show, its unmade phone calls, dwelling on self-criticism, not taking necessary emotional risks to create a more meaningful life. Can I let you in on something? Writing this, the words you are reading right now, is an emotional risk. Anxiety, born out of a fear of getting stuff wrong, is present for me. There have definitely been times when it's kept me from doing important stuff. It continues to be present, but it's a whole heck of a lot quieter than when I started doing this.
To understand why anxiety diminishes when we repeat anxiety-inducing actions, it helps to understand the anxiety cycle. This video by Therapy in a Nutshell breaks it down.
When you are struggling with your feelings, not wanting to feel anxiety, sadness, or frustration - in the struggle with the feelings it's as though you're trapped by your feelings. You might imagine yourself in your feelings. If your feelings were passengers on a train, while you're occupied in your struggle with them, the train takes you where it takes you. It isn't what matters to you that determines where you'll end up so long as you're focused on fighting your emotions. If we stay with this image of a feelings on a train and you've embraced acceptance, you might imagine yourself standing in a field seeing the train go by. The feelings train still exists, but when you're not in your struggle with it, it doesn't determine where you go.
A key part of what makes acceptance so essential to growth and healing is that it demonstrates willingness. When we are willing to experience uncomfortable emotions we free ourselves up to take meaningful action. Meaningful action might look like pursuing a career goal, such as leading a meeting or writing a newsletter, or having an intimidating heart-to-heart with a friend or partner. It might be walking your dog to the park even when you do not feel like it. Allowing yourself to experience unpleasant feelings to connect with what matters to you in life is what acceptance is all about.
A big old caveat to all this acceptance talk - you do not need to have every experience to have a meaningful life. You don't need to do everything that triggers sadness or anxiety. I'm not encouraging seeking discomfort without reason. The question here is whether avoidance of emotions is a barrier to doing what matters to you. That is likely to vary by situation. Remember, there are times when the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to rest.
Before you push yourself way outside your comfort zone, take a moment to identify one doable small step. Acceptance is a skill, and like any other skill it takes practice. Having small successes under your belt helps you develop a repertoire, or foundation, for greater acceptance. Pushing yourself too far too fast puts you at risk for too much too soon which can create ideal conditions for increased avoidance.
Reading a letter isn't therapy. If you're in Virginia and looking for a therapist, visit the website to schedule a free consultation. While not a substitution for the individual care of mental health treatment, what the letter does is it puts therapy concepts into writing so that they can be accessed more widely. If you know someone who'd benefit, forward this on to them. There are two ways to sign up, a consent checkbox for new clients in intake, or easy-peasy from the website... available for anyone.
So, lovely human, the gist is this: acceptance is not handing your power over to your feelings, laying down on the tracks, and giving up. It is allowing them to exist, but not to control you.
It's no easy thing to practice acceptance when we're conditioned to struggle with our feelings: avoid them, shut them down, pretend they don't exist. To be honest, I continue to sometimes struggle with this and try to remember that I am human and, like you, have been taught to avoid and struggle by being a person in the world we live in.
I notice we're both showing up here (me writing these words, you reading them), acknowledging the struggle, and considering if there might be space for acceptance.