“Accept my difficult emotions? What does that even mean?”
In mindfulness-based approaches to therapy we often talk about “acceptance” of difficult or painful thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the newer cognitive-behavioral therapies that incorporates mindfulness as well as values clarification, promotes acceptance as a vital part of developing psychological health and flexibility. Unfortunately, many people’s initial reaction when they hear that is: “That’s not what I want; I want to get rid of those feelings!” and, “How would I do that even if I wanted to?”
In ACT, acceptance doesn’t mean that you have to like these feelings or want to have them. It’s simply a matter of acknowledging their presence and making room for them with openness and compassion, even if you may absolutely want to change the life circumstances that underlie them. You try to stop beating yourself up for experiencing what you see as “negative emotions.” Approaching your experience with interest and a kindly curiosity, you are essentially saying, “I am willing to start by acknowledging reality as it is occurring right now, and I can continue to work toward my goals from here.”
Trying to banish unsettling thoughts or telling yourself that you shouldn’t have certain feelings is rarely helpful to anyone. You’ve probably noticed that it doesn’t make them go away, in fact, in the world of our internal experience, “what we resist persists.” Criticizing yourself for thoughts and feelings makes them seem even more powerful and significant and can also make you feel guilty or think that you are failing. The effort that you put into that struggle can distract you from what is most important – taking constructive action according to your true values -- and keep you stuck.
One way of imagining this process is to think of a movie camera. You can allow the lens through which you view and experience your feelings to go wide, so that while the difficult feelings are still there, your picture contains other experience and sensations as well. From there, it is easier to see that your uncomfortable experiences are part of what is happening, but not all of what is happening, which helps them to feel less overwhelming. With continued practice, this can become your go-to response to uncomfortable inner experiences. As you work with it, you develop an ever increasing sense of confidence that you can take your internal experience as it comes. You can see your thoughts as just thoughts, not as truths to get caught up in or as threats to be avoided and pushed away.
A good therapy experience can provide the support and guidance needed to help you change your relationship to your thoughts and feelings. If your experience feels too overwhelming to approach in this way, a flexible therapist can also integrate other approaches to meet your particular needs. For example, I use EMDR to help clients work through traumatic experiences that may be too intense to handle using an acceptance model. Later in therapy, when clients are feeling stronger, a mindfulness-based approach may offer them techniques that they can carry forward for ongoing self-care.