We spend so much time and energy wishing that certain things didn’t happen, wishing we didn’t feel certain feelings, wishing we didn’t have certain thoughts, wishing we didn’t have certain sensations.
We wish we weren’t anxious or sad or disappointed. We wish we weren’t frustrated or filled with regret. We wish we weren’t sweaty, shaky and lightheaded. We wish we weren’t angry.
So we fight our feelings, thoughts and experiences. So we fight ourselves. We criticize ourselves for our anxiety. You’re being ridiculous! No one gets anxious about this. Except you, of course. We criticize ourselves for our sadness. Why aren’t you over this yet? It’s not that big of a deal. You’re so sensitive.
We try to get rid of our feelings, thoughts and experiences. We avoid them. We pretend they aren’t there, as though we’re dodging someone we know at the grocery store, hightailing it out of there so we don’t have to say hi.
Or we resign ourselves to the fact that the fear, frustration, sadness and shakiness will always be there. It will always be this way. It will never change. I’ll always be this way. I’m just an anxious, angry, pathetic mess.
These types of reactions cause a lot of needless distress, a lot of needless struggle and suffering. These types of reactions only leave us spinning our wheels.
What’s more helpful is acceptance. Acceptance tends to get a bad a rap. And it tends to get confused with other things.
According to psychologists Susan M. Orsillo, Ph.D, and Lizabeth Roemer, Ph.D, in their excellent book Worry Less, Live More: The Mindful Way through Anxiety Workbook, “acceptance is the recognition that things are currently, in this moment, exactly the way they are.” They distinguish acceptance from nonacceptance and resignation.
Here’s an example: Gina wants to speak up at a meeting at her kids’ school but she starts getting nervous. Her throat is dry, and her palms sweat. According to the authors, nonacceptance is Gina trying to relax herself. It’s telling herself that there’s absolutely nothing to fear, and she’s stupid to feel like this. It’s saying, “If I say something, everyone will notice that my voice is shaky and I’m nervous.” Because she can’t relax, Gina doesn’t speak at the meeting. And her self-criticism and anxiety grow.
For Gina, resignation looks like noticing her anxiety, and saying she’s just an anxious person—and there’s nothing she can do about that. So she doesn’t share her thoughts. In addition to feeling anxious, she also feels ashamed for not actively contributing.
However, acceptance is Gina noticing her anxious feelings, thoughts and sensations. It’s noticing the urges to stay silent and minimize her anxiety. It’s acknowledging that public speaking makes her nervous. It’s acknowledging her desire to speak up. According to the authors, Gina “chooses to make comments even though she notices her voice is wavering and her anxiety increases. She also notices satisfaction from doing what matters, while she continues to experience anxiety.”
In another example, Katy just ended a long relationship, and she’s devastated and feeling very lonely. She keeps thinking that she’ll feel like this forever. Nonacceptance is Katy telling herself to snap out of it. She tries to distract herself—but to no avail. Her thoughts return to the breakup. In addition to feeling sad, she also feels angry with herself, because she just can’t snap out of it.
Resignation is Katy thinking that she’ll always be alone. She keeps ruminating about all the reasons she is sad and lonely. She keeps ruminating about how she’ll never be happy again. She comes to the conclusion that no one would want to have such a negative partner. And she stops going out and withdraws from friends.
However, acceptance is Katy realizing that she’s going to feel sad and lonely for a while. She acknowledges that she’d like these feelings to go away and she accepts them. She spends time alone and grieves the end of her relationship. She is “also able to do some of the things she used to enjoy, without necessarily expecting herself to particularly enjoy those things now. Katy finds that over time she can get some enjoyment from doing things with friends or from funny movies, even as she still feels sadness.”
Acceptance is not letting things go. As Orsillo and Roemer clarify, it’s letting things be. As they are. Instead of yearning to feel happy, you feel your sadness. Instead of yearning to be fearless, you feel your anxiety.
Orsillo and Roemer emphasize that acceptance is a process. “Resistance and the desire to change how we feel, how others act, the thoughts we have, will always arise.” Each time this happens, we can practice the process of acceptance. According to the authors, this includes:
- Noticing what’s happening …
- Noticing our desire to turn away, and instead …
- Turning toward our experience …
- Softening toward it and allowing what is already here to be there, and then …
- Seeing what we learn and how we want to act.
You also can try the exercise “Inviting a Difficulty In and Working with it through the Body.”
It’s hard to accept certain feelings, thoughts and experiences. For one, it’s likely something you don’t have much practice doing. You’re probably more used to avoiding or fighting or wishing away. You’re probably more used to berating and criticizing yourself.
But acceptance is liberating. Accepting things as they are is like taking weights off your ankles. It might feel strange or foreign, especially at first. But it helps you feel lighter. It’s tremendously powerful in soothing your distress and helping you lead a fuller life. Because once you accept something, you can take action to change it, if you like.
Once you accept that you’re struggling with sadness, you can start seeing a therapist. Once you accept that you’re having a hard time at work, you can talk to your supervisor and examine the adjustments you can make. Once you accept your anger, you can start setting boundaries with others—even difficult people.
I think of acceptance as listening to ourselves. It’s a way of honoring and respecting ourselves—how we feel, what we think, what we experience. And that’s very powerful.