Acceptance is key to many therapeutic modalities – including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT - to be explored more in August!), and 12-step therapies. Acceptance is something that many have an understandable resistance and I think it’s because it’s made to feel like giving up or giving in – often made to seem passive. It’s also something that can feel very abstract, but difficult to see as a practical skill or application. It’s important that these therapeutic concepts feel applicable and not simply something you memorize or that sound good in theory.
What is acceptance? It is a psychological, cognitive, and emotional openness. It’s an awareness and recognition of what is. It’s making room for thoughts and feelings to be what they are. It’s starting from the current place rather than the place you wish you were. It’s resisting the strong urges to fight against reality.
It’s important to remember what acceptance is NOT: It does not mean that we like, choose, or want what we find to be real in the present. It does not mean we have given up or resigned ourselves to not make changes. And it does not mean that things will always remain as they are. It’s not giving up your options.
It’s not a passive stance, it takes work and practice and mindfulness. It’s active. It’s curious. It wants to know more. It wants to observe the present reality, thoughts and feelings with psychological flexibility. It wants to get to know where we are, to hold it lightly with compassion rather than with defensiveness. Acceptance is in service of understanding where we are and how to make movement toward what we value.
The truth is often we are thinking these sorts of thoughts: I’ll xyz when I xyz or IF I was xyz. For example, ‘if I weighed less, I would be happy,’ ‘I would be able to make life change, if my life was more manageable, if I had help around the house.’ However, true life change must start where we are, there is no other place to start but here. Energy is stolen and misused in the resistance – and often contributes toward the type of avoidance that breeds anxiety, isolation, and destructive behaviors.
The opposite of acceptance is experiential avoidance. Behaviors often used to avoid potentially painful experiences, thoughts, and feelings are self-harm, distraction, over-working, over-sleeping, ED behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, perfectionism, and isolation. These actions work against values and against mental health. Acceptance leads toward values and toward mental health.
Acceptance is characterized by a connectedness – to the present, to God, to self, to others. It is a connected to what is rather than being caught up in the past or future, desires for control, wishful thinking, denial, etc.
What is an area of your life where you find yourself quite often practicing experiential avoidance? What behaviors do you find yourself utilizing when you are avoiding reality? How can you begin to notice these red flags more quickly? Where do you need to actively practice acceptance?
Take time this week to be curious, open, and reflective about your current experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Allow yourself to be present and connected with them long enough to learn from them. Move from where you are, even if it’s a place you do not like. We can only start where we are.