You may have been hearing people talk about acceptance more and more in past years, particularly those people who have been introduced to mindfulness, yoga, or many other mind/body approaches.
People promise that it’s good for us to accept, but what do we actually MEAN by acceptance? And maybe more importantly, what don’t we mean? Acceptance, as it’s meant to be understood in Mindfulness or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, is a nuanced concept.
Initially you might think, “Okay, I’m being told to accept everything. Guess I’m going to just give up, throw in the towel, and wait for the end to come. I’m not supposed to care about anything…I suppose that’s one way to fix my problems. (insert eye roll)”.
That is precisely NOT what acceptance is. Acceptance does not mean giving up, not acting to make our lives better, or not caring about anything. Acceptance is allowing yourself to be fully present to whatever experience is already happening without trying to judge it, fight it or alter it. As so eloquently put by Dr. Kelly Wilson, acceptance “is more like opening up than is it like giving up”.
Why would we want to do that?
Because fighting the reality of an experience wastes energy, causes even more distress, and reduces our ability to effectively respond to that experience.
Say you are about to go into a job interview and you are nervous and your hands are sweating. You might say to yourself, “I can’t do this” or “I need to make my hands stop sweating.” You are now judging and fighting your experience and because of it, your distress has gone even higher (i.e., you are distressed about your distress). Not only are you nervous, but you are also judging that your experience of being nervous is unacceptable and must be changed.
Imagine now if you just notice without judgment and accepted your nervousness. Instead of trying to stop your hands from sweating (which is a fool’s errand) and stop your feelings of nervousness, you open up to them. This might look like the following:
You let those nerves wash over you, letting them touch every part of you.
You notice your sweating hands. You feel their clamminess.
You notice your thoughts of “This is horrible” and “I’m so embarrassed”. You don’t try to stop those thoughts or judge them. You just see them go through your mind.
When you open up like this you change your experience into what it is: An experience. That’s it. It is just an experience. Sure you don’t like it, and you don’t have to, but it is still just an experience.
By seeing it in this way you take away some of its power and you build resilience and a greater capacity to handle the situation. You are also able to have more flexibility in the moment, because you are not rigidly fixated on what must be. This leads to better problem solving in the midst of stress.
So the next time you are trying to infuse a little acceptance into your day, remind yourself “I am opening up, I am not giving up.” Then let your experience wash over you.