There is just one final tool in the Reality Check Toolkit: acceptance.
The thing about acceptance is that it really changes your life. But it is quite hard to explain how to do it.
Acceptance is not a cognitive (or head-led) process. If anything, it is a bodily process – one that we are sometimes shunted into after an emotionally painful experience.
As we don’t really learn acceptance, in order to practice it, we kind of need to unlearn our habit of non-acceptance.
And that is what this post is about.
How non-acceptance happens
I’ll describe to you our legacy of non-acceptance through my own story with it, which is likely to be similar to yours.
Before I begun to be more aware, my life could be divided neatly between wanted experiences, such as pleasure or excitement, and emotions that I found too unpleasant and uncomfortable to be present with. It felt kind of like a duck and dive.We tend not to rate acceptance as part of a personal growth strategy Click To Tweet
I’d avoid things like boredom, loneliness and sadness. Instead of experiencing these feelings directly, I’d seek refuge in excessively rationalizing and re-framing my experience – or I’d just go get busy with something. As a consequence, I think I felt afraid of ever letting my life go quiet enough for me to slow down and feel it all.
Although I don’t know you personally, I can guarantee you that you are selective with experiencing your feelings. Everyone balks from something: it is a fixture of our psychology to be more oriented towards pleasure. We all have catalogs, archives of unprocessed emotional experiences because of this tendency.
It is a habit that sets us up for unhappiness and dysfunction.
What exactly does it mean to practice acceptance?
As I mentioned in the beginning, there is a major challenge with explaining acceptance.
If I ask you to ‘try to experience your emotions directly’, you are bound to apply a thought process to that. Dropping out of the mind and into the body to experience things directly is not a skill in the Western person’s toolkit.
In addition to that challenge, there are also a few unhelpful associations with the word acceptance which mean we don’t rate it as part of a personal growth strategy. For example, we mistake acceptance with resignation, which I’ll talk about more in a moment.
We also misconstrue acceptance to be about accepting our personal circumstances. But accepting circumstances outside of your direct circle of influence, which is also a good thing to do, describes responsibility rather than acceptance. I talked more about that in this article.
So I’ve just described a few things that acceptance isn’t. What is it?Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as they are Click To Tweet
Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as things are. It is a move away from self-deception, towards reality.
What don’t we accept?
Most of us easily accept (and are present for) positive emotions, such as the feelings of being validated, excitement, or intellectual stimulation, for example.
The war we wage tends to be reserved for those feelings on the more depressing side of the emotional spectrum. Boredom; loneliness; heartache; sadness; disappointment; grief; despair: most of us stuff these things with a smartphone. We also avoid in ourselves feelings and traits that we judge others for, such as laziness or neediness.By not practicing acceptance, we stay aloof to the intelligence of our feelings Click To Tweet
When we practice acceptance, we are deliberately choosing to slow right down to all experiences that appear on the radar. We actually welcome harder emotions and explore them with curiosity.
Not only is this quite a radical departure from the standard position, it may even sound totally mental and sadistic. However, there are consequences to remaining at arm’s length of emotions. ‘The death of one God is the death of them all’, said somebody once. In other words, in neglecting to give some of our emotions permission, we can wind up not being able to embody any of them.
This makes us disconnected from ourselves, processing reality solely through our heads instead of through our hearts and feelings.
How do I know what I am not accepting?
This is a good question to ask yourself. The answer probably won’t be obvious.
In my experience, the only way to begin to understand what you routinely do not accept is to start practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is what makes the unobservable observable. From that, you should begin to see when and how you avoid your life.
How practicing acceptance makes you happier
Negative emotions are catalysts for awakening in a way that positive emotions can never be. If you have ever suffered in your life and can look back and see that it helped you to grow, then you know what I am talking about.Experiencing negative emotions is the catalyst for coveted positive states, such as a growing inner confidence Click To Tweet
When I was heartbroken at the end of a relationship in my early thirties, and I relaxed into the deep sadness I felt rather than keeping it at the level of analysis, that experience changed me. I remember that there were whole chunks of time that I wasn’t thinking about what exactly happened nor was I numb: I was just there, present to my sadness.
I grew more compassionate with myself after that. I don’t think that would have ever happened if I was avoiding my feelings with alcohol or drugs like I had been before, or staying over intellectualizing it. The freedom you get when you practice acceptance is what contributes over time to a higher happiness set point.
One thing that keeps many of us feeling helpless and unhappy in life is not having control over our behaviour. Compulsive habits are big red flags that we aren’t accepting something. That’s because ignoring our emotions creates a strain, and a lot of us find a release through substance abuse.
Acceptance means you stop identifying with the thing you aren’t accepting
This is subtle, but practicing acceptance actually helps you with not being consumed by the feelings you are trying so hard to avoid.
Let’s take the experience of laziness, which is a feeling that many of us judge ourselves for and avoid. Here is the Meditation teacher and author Pema Chodron explaining how experiencing laziness ‘directly and non-verbally’ can lead to a wider perspective.
“This process of experiencing laziness directly and nonverbally is transformative. It unlocks a tremendous energy that is usually blocked by our habit of running away. This is because when we stop resisting laziness, our identity as the one who is lazy begins to fall apart completely. Without the blinders of ego, we connect with a fresh outlook, a greater vision. This is how laziness—or any other demon—introduces us to the compassionate life.”When we stop struggling against certain emotions, we stop being defined by them too Click To Tweet
In other words, when we stop mentally struggling against laziness, we stop identifying so much with the trait. It is the same with sadness or grief. If they are welcomed to the table, then the identification stops.
Now I want to talk through three misconceptions surrounding acceptance.
Does practicing acceptance make us less effective in our lives?
As I said in the beginning, acceptance is not resignation. If you care about having high personal effectiveness, then you want to be practicing acceptance.
When a person is resigned, they have given up and are being passive. On the other hand, when we are willing to accept things, we are demonstrating courage, compassion with ourselves, and presence. These are strenghtening qualities.Acceptance is what makes change possible Click To Tweet
We grow up believing that judging and evaluating ourselves negatively is how we improve. Actually, the best transformation fuel is letting yourself feel what you need to feel, so you can decide what you want to do about it. That is how we develop intrapersonal intelligence.
Basically, acceptance is what makes change possible, which is known as the ‘acceptance paradox’.
Can we sidestep acceptance and just choose to be positive?
Positively re-framing negative experiences is a form of non-acceptance. Anytime you have to apply a cognitive process in order to be okay with whatever is happening, then that is a form of struggle.
For most of my life, I have been very effective at re-framing negative experiences and therefore haven’t been held back much by my emotions. There is a time and a place for re-framing, but doing it all the time isn’t healthy.
Our emotions shouldn’t stop us from acting – but as I have found, they do need their permission.
Does acceptance mean bathing in our emotions?
Acceptance isn’t bathing in our feelings indefinitely and dragging out our melancholy. Once again, acceptance is compassionate presence.
In reality, whenever we are being consumed by emotions, we are really being consumed by our interpretations of them. Experiencing emotions directly, without the thought element, never results in prolonged suffering.
If you feel frequently too caught up in your emotions, practicing mindfulness will make the largest difference to you.
Exercises in acceptance
Although acceptance is not a cognitive process, it does help to have a level of understanding. If I didn’t believe that, I’d never have written this article!
Exercises from Radical Acceptance:
Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation
Mindfulness meditation develops the capacity to relate to our daily lives and experiences with deep clarity. It is the key acceptance practice.
To do mindfulness meditation, begin by bringing you awareness to your breath. Breath is used as the primary anchor of mindfulness. Take a few very full breaths, before settling into natural breathing. There is no need to control it.
You will find that your mind endlessly aims to drift off into thoughts. You are cultivating the capacity to recognize when that is happening without getting lost in the story-line. You could just remark ‘thinking, thinking’ and return your awareness to your breath.
‘Facing difficulty and naming what’s true’
This mindfulness exercise is more targeted towards working through a specific issue. It should help you to improve your understanding about a difficult situation in your life.
Bring to mind a situation or issue in your life that is currently challenging you (think interpersonal conflict, financial pressure or stress at work). Ask yourself ‘how am I feeling about this?’ and bring a receptive presence to your body. Pay particular attention to your throat, chest and stomach.
After naming your experience, ask yourself if its true. If not, continue the inquiry. If you get lost for a time in thoughts, make a note: ‘planning, obsessing, fantasizing’ and return your attention to your body.
Labeling should occur in the background 5%, with the majority of your attention focused on awareness and attending to your actual experience.
‘Radical acceptance of pain’
This mindfulness exercise is designed to relax our resistance to unpleasant sensations.
Get into a relaxed state. Gently scan through your body. Where is the area of strong discomfort or pain that calls your attention? Bring a receptive attention directly to the unpleasant sensations in that part of your body. Notice what happens as you begin to be present with this pain. Is there an attempt, however subtle, to push the pain away? To cut it off, block it off, pull away? Is there fear?
Experience your awareness as the soft space that surrounds the pain and allow the unpleasant sensations to float in this awareness. Resting in this openness, now bring a more precise attention to the changing sensations in the area of pain. What is the experience actually like? Do you feel burning, aching, twisting, throbbing, tearing, stabbing?
Investigate with a nonreactive, soft attention.
‘Discovering your deepest longing’
This exercise is about bringing your desires into the light of awareness. Our desires hold a lot of fear for many of us.
Get relaxed and comfortable. When you feel settled, ask yourself, ‘What does my heart long for?’ Your initial answer might be that you want to be healthy, to lose weight, to make more money, to find a partner. Ask again and listen deeply, accepting whatever spontaneously arises.
Continue in this way for several minutes, asking yourself the question, pausing and paying attention in an accepting and nonreactive way. Perhaps your answer will begin to deepen and simplify. Be patient and relaxed—with time, as you listen to your heart, your deepest longing will emerge.
‘Being with fear’
This mindfulness exercise, which isn’t suitable if you have suffered trauma, can be practiced anytime you feel fear. Using your breath, you allow yourself to touch its sensations, exhaling, and letting go into openness. It helps to cultivate an open and engaged presence.
To start, get into a relaxed state. Now bring to mind a situation that evokes fear. Ask yourself: ‘What is the worst part of this situation? What am I really afraid of?’
While your inquiry may give rise to a story, if you stay alert to the sensations that arise in your body, the story becomes a gateway to accessing your feelings more fully. Pay particular attention to your throat, chest and stomach area, discover how fear expresses itself in you.
Of the three reality red pills – mindfulness, responsibility and acceptance – acceptance might be the most challenging to master. It is not something that benefits from being over discussed or over thought.
However, acceptance should flow naturally from your mindfulness practice. That is because practicing mindfulness causes us to lose over identification with our thoughts and tune in more directly to how we are feeling.
I encourage you to use your mindfulness practice to build your awareness of what emotions and experiences you might not be accepting. As you grow that awareness, you can hopefully begin to experience those stickier emotions more directly.
Acceptance is one of the ‘reality red pills’ in my new book, My Own Guru. Check it out.