Many reactions tend to show up when people hear “Acceptance.” Perhaps you think it means resignation, giving up, dealing with it, or getting used to it. These are all perfectly normal reactions when hearing the word “acceptance,” and makes sense if you were immediately turned off. But, if you are willing, we invite you to hold these reactions lightly and discover another possible definition.
In ACT, “Acceptance” means making room for whatever thoughts, feelings, and sensations show up, even if they are unpleasant or painful. Dr. Zack uses several other synonyms, such as “getting to know,” “sitting with,” “allowing,” and “being willing.” No matter what words we use, though, this might still sound a bit strange and scary, especially if you have spent a long time trying to avoid or get rid of thoughts and feelings. Most people come to therapy because they want to feel better, fix the way they are thinking, or to gain life-long happiness, confidence, and self-esteem. Almost nobody comes to therapy to learn how to make room for their unwanted thoughts and feelings.
It’s completely natural to search for pleasant emotions like a hidden treasure, and run away from unpleasant emotions as if they are life-threatening diseases. Most of us were raised in a society that convinced us happiness is a tangible place where you get to only if you think positively, have enough money, sculpt the perfect body, get married, have kids, and so on. This same society also convinced us we must avoid perfectly normal human experiences – like sadness, anxiety, worry, anger, and fear – at all costs, even if the cost is doing things you really care about. For example, can you think of a time you really wanted to talk to your friends and family about something that was going wrong in your life, but the fear of rejection or thinking you don’t want to bother anyone got in the way?
Recently, there has been an influx of studies showing avoiding unpleasant thoughts and feelings leads to more psychological distress and turmoil. To say it another way, when you try really hard to stop yourself from feeling painful emotions, it might actually make you feel worse. In contrast, if you are willing to experience unpleasant thoughts and feelings, you might be opening the door to a different type of relationship with yourself: one of self-compassion, -warmth, -openness, and -love. Acceptance provides the opportunity to grow through your pain rather than ignore it. Don’t buy into this as a matter of research or as a matter of “fact.” Instead, we challenge you to buy this as a matter of experience.