How (and Why) to Practice Acceptance
Here we’ll explore the benefits of acceptance and learn how to do it more often.
We all have a general sense of what it means to “accept” something. There are many aspects of life that we could simply “accept” - financial circumstances, unhealthy relationships, unfulfilling jobs, etc. However, in psychology, acceptance means “taking a stance of non-judgmental awareness and actively embracing the experience of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they occur” (Hayes et al., 2004).
One of the key ideas underlying acceptance is that difficult emotions are an inescapable part of life: at different times we will find ourselves sad, angry, disappointed, bored, frustrated, grieving, heartbroken, etc... No one, even the most even-keeled individual, is free of these emotions. When these emotions inevitably do arise, there are two ways that we can react: resistance or acceptance. For many of us, resistance is our default reaction. After all, these emotions are not necessarily “pleasant” to experience. But psychologists have found that trying to resist or avoid certain difficult experiences can cause further psychological harm (Hayes et al., 2006).
Why Acceptance Is Important
Experts suggest that acceptance is the healthier option. For example, Tara Brach writes, “believing that something is wrong with us is a deep and tenacious suffering” (2004). Your experience of yourself consists largely of your emotions, thoughts, and actions, and so learning to accept these (even when they seem difficult or undesirable) is a helpful tool for well-being.
To be more accepting, it can be helpful to reflect on your habitual attitude towards yourself. Ask yourself:
Do you ever speak harshly to yourself about a perceived mistake you made or an embarrassing thing you said?
Are you ever feeling overwhelmed with emotion, and on top of everything, frustrated with yourself for feeling this way?
How might you be able to take a more understanding and gentle attitude towards yourself?
How To Be More Accepting
1. Cultivate acceptance by noticing your resistance.
How do you tend to resist your experience? Do you snack to stave off boredom, or binge TV when you are sad? Most of the ways we resist our experiences are unconscious—we do not always understand why we do certain things at certain times. So, resistance can become habitual. The first step towards changing any habit is simply becoming aware of its existence.
2. Cultivate acceptance by questioning your patterns.
Once you have started to notice when and how you resist your experiences, try to dig a little deeper to consider why these patterns might exist. When you were sad or angry as a child, how did the adults in your life react? Did they allow you to work through these emotions, or did they (perhaps with the best intentions) tell you to put on a brave face or stop throwing a tantrum? Do you think these experiences might have influenced the way you process emotions today? It might be helpful to write out some of these reflections to remind yourself of your habitual patterns. It can also be a good opportunity for self-acceptance in that you can see that formative experiences, outside of your control, may have shaped your current patterns. The good news is that any pattern is open to change, as long as you are aware of it.
3. Cultivate acceptance by being mindful.
So how can we even become aware of our habitual patterns? One way is with mindfulness. Mindfulness involves both awareness and acceptance of our experience. A traditional method of practicing mindfulness is through meditation, which involves dedicating a period of time to simply observing experience nonjudgmentally. However, you can bring mindful moments into your everyday life, even without meditating.
4. Cultivate acceptance by thinking of your inner child.
We are often our own harshest critics. Accepting ourselves can be difficult because we are most likely so used to judging ourselves for thinking, feeling, and acting certain ways. It is rare that you would judge a loved one as harshly as you judge yourself. One helpful technique in the meantime is to think about yourself as a child. This can help remind you of your most innocent and vulnerable self, which may make it easier to be gentle and understanding when your experience is difficult.
5. Cultivate acceptance through practice.
Acceptance is just like any other skill: it takes practice. People who are accepting of themselves and others have made acceptance a mental habit by continuously choosing a more accepting mindset over and over again. After a while, these repeated mental choices become habitual and natural and do not require as much effort. So, next time you find yourself struggling with difficult emotions, try to use this as an opportunity to practice acceptance.
Remember, acceptance is not the same as resignation. Acceptance refers to acknowledging and allowing your present experience - not necessarily your life situation. Through awareness and practice, you have the ability to increase acceptance in your own life and enjoy the benefits that it may bring.
Brach, T. (2004). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a Buddha. Bantam.
Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy: Model, processes and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(1), 1-25.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., Bunting, K., Twohig, M., & Wilson, K. G. (2004). What is acceptance and commitment therapy?. In A practical guide to acceptance and commitment therapy (pp. 3-29). Springer, Boston, MA.