Category: Panic

The Science of Acceptance (and How to Get “Unstuck”)

By Aliza Dinerstein, LMSW

Throughout life, many of us experience periods of time when we find ourselves feeling stuck. We may feel stuck in an unfulfilling job, stuck in a conflict with a good friend, or even stuck in our own feelings of depression, panic, or fear. Understandably, our instinctual response is to try everything in our power to fight the reality as it is, in the hopes of rewriting the past and present according to the script of what we feel reality should be. Although on the surface this approach appears to be constructive, it is often the very act of not accepting the facts of reality which can cause us to become even more fastened to the problems that we are trying to rid ourselves of.

What is Acceptance?

Acceptance, the willingness to fully experience reality as it is, is a fundamental aspect of evidence-based psychotherapy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a behaviorally oriented approach to psychotherapy that places emphasis on the combination of acceptance and behavioral change. Within the ACT framework, acceptance is considered the impetus of change in regards to our actions, thoughts, and feelings. Similarly, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) also focuses heavily on “radical acceptance” as a primary intervention for tolerating, decreasing suffering, and increasing our capacity for change.

Why is accepting reality so important?

When we reject reality we focus our energies on trying to change things that are beyond our control, which then causes us to feel stuck and helpless. Non-acceptance leads us to getting tangled up in our distressing thoughts and feelings, and we may notice ourselves trying to undo the past and control the future. Furthermore, refusal to accept our challenges causes us to avoid experiences of pain or fear, and before we know it we are no longer able to do the things that matter to us most. This concept is illustrated with the following metaphor (adapted from ACT): Imagine that you were blindfolded and placed in a large field, and you were given a small bag with some items to help you in the darkness. Unbeknownst to you, this very field was full of large holes, and soon after you began walking around the land you fall into a deep pit. You don’t know how to get out, so you take out your bag and find a shovel. You feel a sense of relief knowing that you have found the “perfect” tool, and you began to dig. However, as time passes, you realize that not only are you still in the hole, but it is actually much bigger. You continue to dig, even more fervently, but somehow the hole just continues to grow… Non-acceptance of reality may seem like the only tool we have, but it only creates the illusion that we are working towards solving our problem while we are actually just digging ourselves deeper into a hole.

How can I start to work on Acceptance?

Here are four steps you can take today:

  1. Accept with your whole self. Instead of just thinking, practice acceptance by engaging your heart and your body, as well as your mind. Use relaxation techniques (such as mindfully counting your breath), prayer, or go to a place that makes you feel calm while you think about the challenge of fully accepting reality for what it is.
  2. Use an acceptance (or self-acceptance) statement. Choose a phrase that helps you feel closer to accepting reality such as “this is what it is”  or “I accept myself as I am.”
  3. Fake it until you make it. List the things you would actually do if you were more accepting, and then act as if you have already accepted the unpleasant realities in your life. Choose one thing on the list and do it each day, even if you don’t feel motivated in the moment.
  4. Ride the wave. Allow sadness, disappointment, and/or grief to rise within you, while acknowledging that life can be worth living, even with pain. Often, after the emotions heighten they will naturally fall again, just like a wave.

Accepting reality is both a choice and a skill. The more we engage in the practices of acceptance we can build resilience to handle life’s challenges without getting “stuck,” and increase our capacity to not only tolerate difficulty but to grow through it as well.