The Science of Acceptance

Updated: May 26

Although acceptance is universal for all humans to partake in, it is a complex process that possesses multiple cognitive barriers to surmount in order to be fulfilled. Research on the human brain and cognition has shown that we are emotionally tied to our beliefs about the world and will seek information to confirm them as opposed to rejecting them (Zmigrod, 2019). In the instance where our beliefs are rejected, a distressing feeling of cognitive dissonance emerges, which oftentimes becomes repressed as the human mind is automatically primed to seek safety and avoid distress (Panayiotou et al., 2014). Accordingly, this forms the basis of why acceptance is a difficult process to undertake, as it demands a degree of active intention and willfulness to achieve. In other words, the act of acceptance necessitates for the practitioner to override their cognitive instincts to purposefully face unpleasant stimuli (Cohen, 1989). However, research indicates that the act of acceptance is only difficult as a novel practice and can be easily accommodated with time and consistency (Forsyth & Ritzert, 2018). As such, with the relevant awareness on the subject paired with the intention to undertake the practice of acceptance with consistency, any individual can integrate it within their lives and reap the multitude of psychological, emotional and physical benefits.

Acceptance is an act that has been present throughout our history being frequently cited in religious, spiritual, and more recently, academic domains. It is a concept that is deeply embedded within human thinking and has garnered extensive study linking its implementation to various cognitive, psychological and even spiritual outcomes (Hayes, Strosahl & Wilson, 2009). Accordingly, recent studies have begun outlining the various ways that acceptance can positively impact one’s life and wellbeing. Thus, it is becoming increasingly important to assess the validity of the available methods of acceptance and ascertain the impact that they can have on the individual. In clinical terms, it is defined as a process of actively contacting psychological experiences directly, fully, and without needless defense while behaving effectively (Moran, 2011). Simply put, acceptance can be defined as an openness to internal experiences where there is a willingness to take what is offered without protest or reaction (Walser & Westrup, 2007). Areas of cognitive and positive psychology have begun to recognise the underlying mechanisms that enable acceptance and relate them to the different benefits that come with its implementation (Herbert et al., 2015). The primary breakthroughs have come in the form of addictions and trauma treatment where acceptance was significantly related to mitigating conditions such as grief and trauma-related affective disorders (e.g., major depressive disorder and chronic pain disorder) (Aytur et al., 2021; Thompson et al., 2011). Moreover, recent studies have begun to illustrate the different neural mechanisms that underlie acceptance, acting as a foundational substrate of evidence in support of acceptance and its various benefits (Aytur et al., 2021; Teper & Inzlicht, 2013). Imaging studies have shown increased activation of the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex of participants after acceptance training. Higher levels of connectivity were also observed in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex in participants which was shown to reduce perceived physical and psychological pain as well as increase psychological resilience in response to pain (Smallwood et al., 2016). Accordingly, the opportunities for acceptance in research and practice are increasing by the year and it is crucial to appropriately analyze acceptance and observe how it would best impact one’s life and wellbeing.

Throughout this article, we will deconstruct the process of acceptance to provide a deeper understanding of the act for anyone to use and implement. We will begin by assessing the anatomy of acceptance and its different cognitive and psychological subcomponents. In reality, acceptance can be viewed as an umbrella term that holds a host of different processes that are important to discuss. Second, we will review how acceptance has been implemented in therapeutic strategies and demonstrate its efficiency in treating various mental disorders. Lastly, although acceptance is evidenced to directly affect various psychological and cognitive processes, we will also discuss the collateral effect that it may have on one’s overall life, social skills, and personal development.

The Anatomy of Acceptance

Acceptance is a multi-faceted process that consists of various cognitive procedures required to generate the relevant beneficial outcomes. Overall, it equates to the active embracing of subjective experiences fully and without defense. To undertake this, the individual is required to activate processes including mindfulness, cognitive distancing, metacognition and cognitive flexibility (Herbert et al., 2015).

  • Mindfulness: This concept is originally derived from traditional Buddhist and Hindu practices and was later introduced to academic practices in 1989 by social psychologist Ellen Langer (1989). It is best defined as the ability to pay attention in a particular way, purposefully, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Concerning acceptance, mindfulness characterizes it as something that someone does with intention, where instead of passively accepting events, the individual is actively involved in processing the fullness of a particular experience.

  • Cognitive Distancing: Acceptance is also comprised of regulating one’s reaction towards subjective experience, especially in response to particularly distressing experiences. Beck (2014) posits that it is the ability to perceive one’s experience and thoughts from an independent perspective, separate from the experience or thought itself. Essentially, this process considers that the individual thought is an automatically programmed reaction that need not be directly identified with, and it is crucial to consider it as such as opposed to giving it too much psychological credence.

  • Metacognition: As the term suggests, metacognition relates to the beliefs or thoughts that one has on their thinking. It is the awareness of one’s thought processes and the understanding of the pattern behind them. Hence, rather than focusing on the content of a specific thought, metacognition is the transcending process of evaluating the belief that one has on that thought (Prather et al., 2020).

  • Cognitive Flexibility: This process equates to the ability to efficiently sift through available information and accept it as it is without inserting subjective bias or prejudice within the assessment. It requires one to be present in the moment, fully aware and transparent of their emotions to efficiently manage unwanted inner events (Haun et al., 2020). Furthermore, it entails having to respond to stimuli in a way that is functional to a particular context and congruent with personal values.

Individually, each of these processes has been evidenced to positively impact psychological wellbeing and functioning (Eilenberg et al., 2017). Many therapies aiming to address various affective disorders such as depression and anxiety frequently implement these practices and have shown great success in reducing negative symptoms (Haun et al., 2020; Prather et al., 2020). However, the benefits of these strategies extend from merely treating psychiatric illness. The underlying focus of mindfulness, cognitive distance, metacognition or cognitive flexibility is to enhance the regulation of thought processes and subsequent behavior. This can play a preventive role for mental disorders and act as an element of optimization for every day (Ford et al., 2018). As such, studies have demonstrated that acceptance contributes to higher life satisfaction, greater interpersonal relationships and even increased purpose and sense of belonging (Chen et al., 2020).

Acceptance in Clinical Practice: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

The accumulating evidence in support of acceptance has contributed to its integration within clinical settings to treat and manage a host of different problems. Due to its high generalizability, acceptance can be applied to almost any domain, making it one of the most applicable and cost-effective forms of therapy. Officially titled Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it offers comprehensive steps that one can take to overcome any issues that they may have. Moreover, its tenets are also applicable outside therapeutic contexts and in personal environments to enhance wellbeing, social functioning and behaviour change (Fiasse & Nader-Grossbois, 2012). ACT links all the components of acceptance together (i.e., mindfulness, cognitive distancing, metacognition and cognitive flexibility) to support individuals in the process of embracing their thoughts and feelings to achieve a sense of psychological completeness (Gloster et al., 2020). One of the primary practices of ACT is to cultivate the commitment to facing problems head-on instead of avoiding them. The human brain is automatically primed to avoid pain or distress acting as a potential risk factor for developing psychological disorders such as OCD, anxiety and depression in high avoidant states (Borza, 2022). In consequence, one method that has been proven to rewrite this pattern is through cultivating acceptance of external and internal experiences. Thus, allowing the mind to efficiently process and integrate novel information without inducing repression due to avoidance.

Throughout clinical studies, ACT has demonstrated robust evidence for managing psychological disorders as well as enhancing self-improvement and overall functioning (Gloster et al., 2020, Hayes et al., 2012). By reducing the psychological strain associated with the processing of unpleasant internal experiences, research has shown that meaning and purpose in life are subsequently increased (Twohig & Levin, 2017). This effect is directly linked with the acceptance mechanism of cognitive flexibility which allowed individuals to accept incoming experiences without cognitive interferences and integrate them within their selves (Twohig & Levin, 2017). When applied to disorders such as anxiety and depression, ACT significantly reduced the degree of perceived intensity of the symptoms and promotes engagement and involvement in meaningful activities. In essence, acceptance is a powerful tool to be applied for both protective and enhancing functions. Moreover, the cognitive skills that are learned during the process of acceptance remain with the individual once they are learned and can be implemented throughout one’s lifespan for different appliances (Graham et al., 2016).

The Collateral Effects of Acceptance

On a broader scale, due to the generalisable nature of acceptance, it has a wide range of collateral impacts when it is practiced consistently. As we have previously mentioned, acceptance has been evidenced to positively treat mental disorders and optimize self-development. However, its effects are much broader than that, extending to emotional and even spiritual benefits (Carrico et al., 2007). A lack of self-acceptance has been shown to directly limit one’s capacity for happiness (Bernard, 2014). Oftentimes, many individuals remain constrained by various beliefs from their experiences. When information arises that challenges these beliefs, an unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance emerges which negatively impacts mood and emotions. Conversely, when acceptance is consistently practiced, individuals can use cognitive flexibility to slowly detach from their entrenched beliefs to accept the reality of a given situation. This leads to improved psychological and emotional well-being and shields the mind from any unpleasant feelings that may arise from conflicting experiences (Szentagotai & David, 2013). This notion is also in line with the concept of forgiveness, as acceptance promotes feelings such as compassion and reduces levels of self-criticism (Costa & Pinto Grouveai, 2011). The inability to forgive is a significant contributor to the development of negative feelings that may potentially lead to dysfunctional modes of thinking (Pillay, 2017). Hence, it is fundamental to be able to accept and forgive if one is seeking to promote well-being and happiness in their life. Moreover, research has shown that high levels of acceptance are directly correlated to confidence and high self-esteem (MacIness, 2006). Negative self-perceptions are universal among the general population where most individuals hold many negative views about themselves and elements of their lives. Through acceptance, it is possible to embrace the perceived negative qualities that one may have and understand that it is not necessary to identify with them. Furthermore, it is also a catalyst to realize that failure is natural and with it bringing forth higher levels of confidence and self-esteem (Hayes, 2009). Lastly, acceptance is a frequently cited tool to be used in the spiritual process of self-discovery (Benner, 2015; Santiago & Gall. 2016). When an individual possessed a high level of avoidance behaviour, realities of the self are frequently repressed leading to high levels of cognitive dissonance. In response to this, acceptance can be used to discover and appropriately integrate information about oneself, especially information that is particularly unpleasant and difficult to face.

The bottom line

Acceptance is a vast concept that can be applied to a myriad of different settings. Due to this, research on acceptance is still uncovering different mechanisms to be implemented in practice to benefit the individual. As a practice, acceptance is not a singular mechanism but is comprised of various cognitive processes that drive its efficiency (Herbert, 2015). Many of these cognitive processes are used in clinical settings to treat psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and trauma with high levels of success (Gloster et al., 2020). The most common and successful clinical acceptance intervention is ACT, which integrates all the acceptance sub mechanisms into tangible strategies that have a profound impact on psychological health (Hayes, 2009, 2012).

Interestingly, the benefits of acceptance are not constrained to clinical practice as it has a fundamental role in personal development and spiritual growth. With the consistent practice of acceptance, an individual can cultivate forgiveness, self-esteem and heightened emotional regulation (MacIness, 2006; Costa & Pinto Grouveai, 2011). Moreover, it is also an essential component to developing an enduring state of happiness as well as discovering the true nature of the self (Bernard, 2014).

With the information outlined above, it is now clear how important acceptance is for overall health and functioning in today’s society that is saturated by many distractions with the potential to disrupt one’s psychological processes. Its implementation in one’s life is not strict nor linear as it is possible to undertake acceptance through an individualized approach that best fits. In addition, applying acceptance is not time-sensitive and it can be cultivated with more efficiency and productivity throughout one’s life. Hence, if you are looking to lead a meaningful and fulfilled life, acceptance is the key to this.


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