The mind is a tricky thing.
And, despite good intentions, yours might be laying a trap for you.
To find out why, we need to take a look at one of your best allies in bouncing back in life: acceptance.
The word “acceptance” comes from the Latin, acceptare, which means “to take what is offered willingly.”
Willing is the key word here.
Accepting something means that you are willing to take it on, willing to take what is offered to you.
Part of being human is experiencing many different moods, thoughts, and events. Some of them are pleasant and some of them are painful.
Of course, it’s easy to accept the pleasant thoughts and feelings in our lives.
It’s the painful portion that we don’t like that makes us really have to work on accepting it.
What is acceptance?Acceptance, or willingness, according to Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, means:
. . . allowing our thoughts and feelings to be as they are, regardless of whether they are pleasant or painful; opening up and making room for them; dropping the struggle with them; and letting them come and go as they naturally do.This practice allows us to just notice that we are having difficult thoughts and feelings and we can just observe them rather than necessarily believe them.
So we’re not trying to replace our negative thoughts and feelings. We’re actually embracing them. And this embracing – willing acceptance – often creates new positive emotions right alongside the negative ones.
As researcher Kristin Neff says,
When we have compassion [which involves acceptance] for ourselves, sunshine and shadow are both experienced simultaneously.Notice that the idea behind acceptance is not to influence our negative thoughts and feelings at all – not to shrink them, reduce them, or make them go away.
Just dropping the struggle and allowing them to be.
The case for allowing negative experiencesWhy? Why not fight negative experiences or try to get rid of them?
Think about it.
You’ve tried that, haven’t you?
Is it working? Did you get rid of your difficult thoughts and feelings so they never came back again?
And you know why?
It’s part of our condition as humans to always have some experience of pain as well of experiences of joy, love, and contentment.
So we know that resisting just doesn’t work.
The trapWe know that willingly accepting something involves allowing it to be, not struggling with it, and not having any expectation about influencing it.
But here’s the trap that our minds too often wander into:
We don’t want a particular emotion or thought, so we decide we’ll willingly accept it because we know that’s the right thing to do.
However, we often are actually thinking this:
If I am willing to have these thoughts and feelings, then maybe my acceptance of them will make them go away.
Whack! You’re trapped.
Using acceptance as a means to diminish or make your negative experiences go away is actually a subtle way of resisting them.
Instead of creating space for you to let your negative thoughts and feelings come and go naturally, you’ve trapped them in your mind where they will continue to wreak their havoc.
Avoiding the trapYou can see that the trap is actually very subtle.
Here are four ways to avoid it or get out of it once you’re in.
1. Use words that make sense to you.
Maybe acceptance, willingness, creating space, and other terms don’t really resonate for you.
Choose something that will truly represent what acceptance means for you. Some ideas for describing what you’ll do with your negative experience are:
Let it be.
Soften up around it.
Give it permission to be where it already is.
Breathe into it.
Stop wasting energy on pushing it away.
Expand around it.
2. Be curious.
Think of yourself as a scientist who is observing your own inner workings with detached curiosity.
Ask yourself occasionally, “How am I doing? Am I truly making room for these painful thoughts or feelings? Or am I secretly hoping that they’ll go away.”
Be excruciatingly honest with yourself. Anything less keeps you trapped.
3. Ask your body.
Still being a curious scientist, note any tension, tightness, or heavy spots in your body.
Might they be there because you’re holding tightly to something rather than just allowing it to be?
4. Be quiet.
No, I’m not giving you an order here.
But I am encouraging you to take a few minutes to be still.
You can close your eyes if you like or keep them open.
Notice your breath – the way the air feels cool around your nostrils as you inhale and warm as you exhale.
Sit for a few minutes in this quiet space.
What comes up for you?
Awareness of painful thoughts and feelings with room just to let them be?
Or the faint hope that they are going to go away?
If you find yourself resisting at any time, that’s okay. You’re human.
Just go back to allowing your negative experiences to be there. Let them ebb and flow.
Take a breath.
Get back to your life.
Harris, Russ (2009). ACT Made Simple. Oakland, Ca: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.