The Power of Acceptance
Oh Calgary! ( and the world!). This year has been like no other. While every year has its own ups and downs, it seems that during 2020, we’ve endured more than our fair share of challenges. During stressful times, it’s common to experience emotions such as shock, fear, sadness, and even disgust. And that’s okay!
These are normal human reactions to challenging situations. Sometimes though, when the stress does not let up, and the hurdles just keep coming you can get bogged down. Those difficult emotions become all-consuming, they overtake you and define you. So much so, that it begins to impact your everyday life, your concentration, and your happiness. If you’re starting to feel this way, then perhaps it’s time to introduce you to the power of acceptance. First though, to fully understand the concept, let’s explore avoidance (or non-acceptance) and why it doesn’t work.
Often as humans, our default way to cope with challenging situations and difficult emotions is avoidance. This is intuitive, as humans are geared towards pleasure, we avoid things we don’t enjoy. So, because emotions such as anxiety, anger, disgust or sadness aren’t nice, we label them as “bad” or “negative” and try to avoid experiencing them. When something triggers a “bad” emotion, we don’t like to feel this way, so, we push it down. We avoid the feelings, tell ourselves that we’ll be okay, that everything will be alright, and we just keep keeping on.
This might initially make us feel a little better, or work for small issues that aren’t really that upsetting, but as a long-term fix, this approach doesn’t work and only sets us up for unhappiness.
The problem with avoidance
There are two problems with avoidance when it comes to emotions:
1) Emotions don’t just go away.
2) Trying to force yourself to not experience particular emotions actually makes them STRONGER and reduces your tolerance to cope with them!
Why you can’t just push emotions away
A lot of people believe in mind over matter; that if you tell yourself something will be a certain way, then it will eventually be that way. But it is not as simple with emotions; they don’t simply go away if you tell them to. If you tell yourself you are happy, when deep down, you are truly sad, or scared, or angry, you won’t magically become happy. Although on the surface, to others, you might seem to be chipper, underneath the glimmer of that happy façade, those unwanted emotions will fester. For a short time, you might be able to keep those emotions in check and fool yourself into thinking you are actually happy, but eventually, if not processed properly those “bad” emotions boil over.
I’ll give you an example:
Have you ever come home from hard day only to accidentally burn your dinner and then feel this overwhelming anger or frustration?
You might have even snapped at your partner when they mentioned the burnt dinner.
It seems to be a small thing to cause such a strong emotional response. But when you think about it, you know deep down; you weren’t that angry about dinner. What you were really angry about was the fact that your car broke down this morning so you were late for work, you were angry that your boss yelled at you for being late, then your co-worker upset you by eating the snack you’d put aside for your coffee break and finally an annoyed customer was really rude to you. You’d been ignoring this anger all day, pushing it down, telling yourself “it’s okay, just put a smile on and be happy” while it had been bubbling underneath the surface. You thought you’d pushed the “negative” feeling away, but really, you’d just pushed it down, then stacked more and more anger on top of it. Then because you hadn’t given yourself an opportunity to process these emotions properly, it all boiled over with the last thing to upset you. See how even though we think our emotions disappear when we try to stifle them, but they truly don’t?
Forcing yourself not to feel something only makes it stronger
So, we now know that trying to force our upsetting feelings away doesn’t actually send them packing. However, that’s not the worst of it. Trying to force those feelings away actually make them stronger. Just think, rather than cheering yourself up, you’re actually making yourself more upset, more frightened or angrier. The emotional center of our brain is sometimes like a petulant child; the more we say no, the more it pushes the issue. So when we’re saying “no” to anger, it only makes this feeling stronger.
Don’t believe me? Let’s try a little experiment. For 5 minutes (yes actually time yourself) you can think about anything you want in the entire universe, anything. BUT during those 5 minutes you are not to think of a purple elephant.
In case you were wondering, it’s a purple elephant in a tutu doing a recital, but you are NOT to think of it.
How did you go? I’m guessing you put up a good fight, but that elephant crept into your mind at least once in these past 5 minutes. Did you notice that the more you tried not to think about it, the more it actually popped into your mind?
Our emotions are just the same, you push them away, they keep popping up and they just get stronger and stronger.
So how does acceptance help?
Yes, we have shared our thoughts on Acceptance in the past, BUT it is such a common conversation in our practice, we want to keep the conversation going!
Acceptance is about learning to understand, accept and process the world around us in a raw way, without judgement and also without trying to change it or make it seem better/happier/brighter. This is easy with positive events, nice emotions and things we find pleasant because we don’t want to avoid them. It becomes harder, when we’re dealing with the trickier stuff like upsetting or stressful events, trauma, or difficult emotions.
Acceptance gives you the power to slow things down, to be curious and investigate these more challenging emotions and experiences. Although this may seem counterproductive to leading a happier life, trust us, it’s not!
This process gives these experiences and emotions less power. By accepting them freely, being open and ready to experience what they bring, it somehow makes them weaker. This doesn’t mean marinating in our feelings; it means simply getting out of your head and just experiencing things for what they are rather than trying to interpret them or change them to be something else.
It’s like the schoolyard bully who decides its not fun to tease you anymore because you stop reacting. By welcoming these experiences with non-judgmental curiosity, it makes them less threatening. Then, the next time we have a similar experience it is even easier to welcome again. Over time, this can help reduce our negative reactions to emotions such as fear, grief, anger by helping us to learn to experience them without getting stuck in our heads about it.
So why not start practicing a little acceptance today? It’s never too late to learn how to practice acceptance. Get in contact with one of our Therapists today and they’ll be able to guide you through the process!