People often come into therapy seeking change, whether a change in their circumstances, their relationships, or more broadly change in their overall emotional and mental well being. But in some form or fashion, the pursuit often is change, and rarely acceptance. In fact, the idea of acceptance alone may sound like it is in conflict with the hope of change. Even at its best, acceptance can come across to some as trite advice, and at its worst it may sound like an invitation to admit defeat. However, I have come to believe that when we learn the value of accepting where we are at and we develop the skills to give acceptance its proper space in our journey towards growth and change, it can actually sound less like giving up and more like freedom.
As someone who practices mainly from a cognitive behavioral approach I find that, alongside my clients, I too am eager to see change occur. From a CBT lens, this often takes the form of challenging and re-framing negative thought patterns, with the hope and belief that as thoughts change, behaviors and ways of engaging the world will too. But sometimes one of the first thoughts I feel the need to challenge is the common thought many clients walk into their first session with. The thought often goes something like this, “I need someone to fix me, because I feel________, and I shouldn’t feel this way”. While there are countless valid reasons why a person would desire to feel better, to experience the world differently, or to see drastic life changes take place, none of those reasons eradicate the very basic reality that they are currently experiencing the circumstances and emotions that they are at the given moment. In fact, an approach stemming from CBT, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, would argue that viewing our emotions as something to flee from, deny, or avoid is actually a recipe for more shame and anxiety, and that acceptance is a key ingredient for growth, healing, and change. Thus, the necessity of learning the art of acceptance.
To better understand what I mean by acceptance, it can be helpful to first name what acceptance is not. Acceptance is not saying that you are happy in your current state, or a declaration that there is no way forward or no changes to be made. It is however, acknowledging without shame, that this is how you feel and these are the circumstances you find yourself in. But what does acceptance look like practically? While the journey will look different for many people, I often guide clients through three practical components that seem to give shape to acceptance- naming/labeling, sitting with, and sorting through.
Naming & Labeling
Often the work of acceptance starts with putting words to one’s emotions and experiences. While it might sound simple, sometimes naming and labeling is the hardest work. This is because the process often takes a bit of exploration, and requires a fair amount of courage and vulnerability. While most of us can easily identify when we are unhappy, or discontent, it is a much bigger task to find the words to say, “I guess what I am really afraid of is __________” or “I found myself in ___________situation and I expected life to be so different, thus I am painfully disappointed”. Sometimes when people find it hard to put words to where they are at, I guide them through an activity of evaluating how their expectations of life or a given circumstance differ from their reality. An activity that often comes with tears, but also makes room for powerful realizations about how the current reality is not how they hoped it would be.
Sitting with it
Once someone is able to name and identify what they are going through and how they feel about it, I often encourage them to give themself permission to “sit with it”. The idea of sitting with what has been named can feel vague and mysterious, but it is simply the act of giving oneself intentional space to experience and acknowledge their emotions. Thus, a few practical directives I might offer to help clients engage in this include: tuning-in to how one’s body is experiencing the emotion through a body scan or a mindfulness exercise, journaling, talking to a friend, doing art, or putting on some music that captivates or evokes the pre-existing emotions.
Sorting it out
Then comes what I think is a vital piece in the puzzle of acceptance, which is sorting out the truth from the lies & unknowns, so you don’t accept them both. It is the common temptation to not only accept where one is at and how they are feeling, but to tether one’s current struggles and emotions to one’s sense of identity and worth. It is also common to tether them to concrete ideas about the future, frequently found in the words “always” and “never”. So this step is the work of cutting those ties, and giving oneself the freedom to reject what does not need to be accepted. For example, it is one thing to accept that your marriage did not work out and that you feel heartbroken and alone, but the thought that might attach itself and need to be dissected is the one that follows up the prior statement with the declaration that this means you are a failure and that you will certainly always feel this alone. Similarly, it’s one thing to accept that you lost your job, and to acknowledge that you are disappointed and terrified of how you will now pay the rent. That reality is hard enough, but to make it harder, one might naturally add to it the belief that this means you are incompetent, and doomed to never be employed again. Now, I don’t want to imply that the latter thoughts and feelings don’t deserve their space for processing too, but rather I am suggesting that they don’t deserve to be immediately swallowed up in acceptance. Rather, they can be set aside to work through and challenge, ideally with a therapist or an empathetic friend.
Acceptance often seems to have a reputation as a last resort option, but as you consider acceptance in this light I hope you find it possible to view it as a starting point instead. Because surely there is no room for waving a white flag of surrender when there is still so much necessary work still to be done. The work of exploring past trials and trauma is necessary work. The work of challenging our negative thought patterns and our self defeating beliefs is necessary work. The work of identifying where you want to go, and what goals you are striving to accomplish is also necessary work. But often, before you can take the journey of looking back, or begin to embark on the journey of moving forward, you must pause and accept where you are at. And hopefully in doing so, you find greater freedom to do the work that lies ahead.