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Acceptance as a Tool for Dealing with Unpleasant Emotions

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From the book Rock and Water: The Power of Thought; The Peace of Letting Go

In the world of professional psychology, exposure-based procedures have become a helpful tool for the treatment of emotional anxiety. People are often better able to become less fearful of snakes, heights, social events and other personally difficult situations by gradually being exposed to them in various ways (relaxing in their presence with pictures, in imagination, and in their actual presence). This also applies to thoughts and emotions themselves. As a Zen master once said, “we can invite our fear to tea.” By monitoring our natural, unpleasant emotions rather than trying to escape them, and simply letting them happen without dread or struggle, we can begin to change our relationship to those emotions. They may still be uncomfortable, but we are less sensitive to them.

I’m not an expert on depression, but I had a brief episode of depression following the death of our beautiful 14-year old niece Katie several years ago. It was the first time I had experienced the death of a much-too-young loved one (until later experiencing the deeply sorrowful loss of our nephew Doug, who was a much-too-young father). When Katie was killed in a car accident, I experienced a grief I had never felt before. I felt sorrow for my brother and his family and for the enormous loss her death meant for all of us. I could not sleep, eat or find solace. I would not dare to compare my experience to the grief of my brother and his family, but I do know that no measure of reasoning or talking back to my sorrowful thoughts had any effect. After a few days, this grief for others slipped into concern for me. I started to worry about whether I would ever be able to pull out of the darkness.

As CS Lewis expressed it so well in A Grief Observed:

Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. 

I felt this enough to know something of what he was talking about, and this prompted me to seek advice from my wife Julie, who is an expert on pain. Since young adulthood, Julie has struggled with the daily physical pain of rheumatoid arthritis. I asked her how one copes with pain that does not go away. She taught me that at some point I needed to accept the pain itself. Mentally fighting or denying pain that will not go away, only makes emotional pain worse and makes it more difficult to function. She explained that an emotional wound is no less real than a physical wound. For wounds that have not healed and may never completely heal (an “amputation” as CS Lewis calls it), it does little good to hate our wounds and want them to go away; this only creates greater pain. By accepting our pain, and acknowledging it for what it is, we can let go of the additional inner turmoil. Or as Julie would say—in contradiction to purist Zen thinking—once we accept our unpleasant pain, we can then better ignore it, and go about living our lives the best we can.

Julie’s advice on accepting pain was invaluable, and it turns out to be consistent with the thinking and clinical experience of specialists in Acceptance Therapy. Acceptance Therapy, formally called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is based on  the principle of noticing and accepting our internal mental events—especially difficult and unwanted ones—rather than hating them or trying to get rid of them. ACT was developed in the 1980s through the work of Steven Hayes of the University of Nevada, Reno and others. It was developed as another tool to help people with emotional difficulty, for whom behavioral-cognitive tools or medicine were not fully sufficient. A few core principles of ACT include:

  1. Practicing the skill of monitoring our natural feelings from a “third-party” observer point of view.
  2. Not latching on to thoughts and emotions, or over-identifying with their content, but viewing unhelpful thoughts simply as sensations or mental “objects.”
  3. Mindfully accepting unpleasant, difficult-to-change thoughts and emotions by observing  them, letting them come and go, without worrying about them or struggling to escape from them—and without judging them.
  4. Keeping a focus on our own values, and living an actively engaged life based on those values, regardless of our unpleasant emotions.

Reprinted from Rock and Water: The Power of Thought; The Peace of Letting Go by Scott Cooper, October 2017 (with permission from DeVorss Publications)


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