For me, acceptance has been one of the most challenging but also most rewarding core processes of ACT at different times in my life. It’s a powerful therapeutic tool for creating change when people get stuck, too.
A definition of the purpose of Acceptance from ACT founder Steven Hayes – “Allow yourself to have whatever inner experiences are present and when doing so foster effective action.”
Most of us can probably relate to avoidance of some sort, whether its avoiding the dentist or getting injections, running out of the bathroom because there’s a spider in the bath, backing out of a night out at the last minute because of social anxiety or avoiding confrontation because of wanting to avoid upsetting others or provoking criticism or rejection from them. The trouble with it as a coping strategy is that it works in the short term to give you brief relief, but tends to make whatever you avoid get bigger and harder to face in the long run. So if you avoid the dentist your toothache gets worse and rather than a filling you end up losing a tooth for example – or if you avoid the spider, you’ll be even more scared next time one pops up. Whenever you avoid something, you tell yourself that you don’t believe you’re strong enough to deal with it, which can chip away at your confidence. Conversely, facing your fears gives you a huge confidence boost – I should know, I’ve had to face plenty.
To take a concrete parenting example to illustrate, we went for a family walk today in the hills where we live. In the hills, people often ride their horses and sheep and cattle roam on the farm land. So as a result, there are animal faeces on the path frequently. My daughter picked up on this, complaining about the smell and the thought that she might get it on her shoe. We acknowledged she had a point, and that she was right that it was interesting that dog owners have to pick up the dog faeces but the farm animals faeces remained. We then helped her notice what she enjoyed about the walk too – running free, exploring and spending time as a family. I asked her if she was willing to “see the poo and keep on walking anyway” – and she was. So we high-fived and kept on walking. Life for any of us contains plenty times we have to “see the poo and do it anyway”.
Useful Acceptance Questions
Is anything bothering me or my child? Is what’s bothering me or my child something I can change, or something I can’t? Am I willing to acknowledge that I sometimes can’t fix things like I want to, or maybe can’t get what I want when I want it in our lives? Am I willing to let go of struggling if the costs are too high for us?
What am I or my child avoiding dealing with right now? How is that working out for you in your life? What are the costs of avoidance for you or for them?
What would I really love to happen in our lives? What do I really need more of in my life or what would I like to see more of in theirs?
Is there anything that would get in our way to having that? Am I willing to tolerate or find a way to deal with the barriers to getting what I or my child really want?
What do I value most in my life – as an adult? as a parent? What does my child value? Is there any emotional distress linked in with that? Am I (or are they) willing to tolerate the distress in the service of moving towards what I (or they) care about?
Given the distinction between you and the stuff you struggle with, are you willing to have that stuff, as it is and not as what it says it is, and do what works in this situation?
Note: it is always your choice whether you are willing to tolerate distress in the service of pursuing a goal or moving towards a value – “no” can be a valid option. If you talk to your child about whether they are willing to face a fear and they say no, it’s probably best to accept that and perhaps wait until they are ready to talk again.
Tips on how to work on acceptance
Get some practice with NOT avoiding or doing something different to your usual trap. For example, if you always have a few glasses of wine when you see friends at a party to squash social anxiety, try staying sober one time. You need to give yourself the chance to learn that you ARE strong enough to contain your feelings, and that whatever you are scared of happening is likely to be worse in your imagination than in reality. Our minds mean well when they warn us we need to avoid, but it’s so often a trap.
Mindful movement can help you get in touch with your feelings and thoughts in a way you can tolerate them – acknowledging them is the first step to being able to accept them. You might try walking, swimming, yoga, pilates or even more energetic movement like running or dancing.
You might want to try journaling or even blogging as a way to process your thoughts and feelings about something difficult that’s happened in your life that you have trouble accepting. Sometimes that can be a way to process your experience in a way you can work it through rather than get caught up going round in circles in your head.
Try to nurture self-compassion towards the thoughts and feelings you find harder to acknowledge or accept. What would you say to a friend who felt or thought what you do? Who in your life has shown you most compassion? What might they say to you about it do you think? If you want to nurture self-compassion in your child, the first and most important step is to show them love. Then, encourage others in their life to show them more love. A child who knows they are loved will have good internal models to draw on as an adult of what it means to be compassionate to themselves as well as to others.
Focus on what CAN be changed rather than on what can’t. For example, if you’ve ever had to bear the pain of watching someone you love in the grip of an addiction, my heart goes out to you, and I know it’s tough, but you might want to work towards accepting that you can’t force the person to give up the addiction before they are ready and willing to try. What you can do is work on how to deal with your own thoughts and feelings about the situation and manage your relationship with the person in a compassionate way that you can live with.
Be wary of putting an arbitrary limit on how much you are willing to put up with. For example, If your toddler is aware of exactly how much tantrum you’re willing to accept, he or she will just tantrum that exact length of time.
Being willing to tolerate distress in the service of a value is not the same thing as wallowing or being a martyr – if you can imagine your distress as a swamp, it’s only worth wading in if it’s in the way of somewhere you do want to go. And if you do wade in, you might want to make sure you have support on the bank in case you need it.
If you’re ready to face a fear, can you break it into baby steps you could start on today? For example if you’ve been avoiding the dentist, can you book an appointment? Who could you seek support or help from to assist you in facing your fear – who can cheer you on? What can you treat yourself to once you’ve taken that first step – a nice glass of wine? coffee and cake? a new book?
Develop some anchors you feel an affinity to that help you accept the limits we all face as human beings. For me, I like the serenity prayer –
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” – Reinhold Neibuhr.
I also like the quote “This too shall pass” – Abraham Lincoln.
Another of my favourites is “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional” – Haruki Murakami