How to practice acceptance to change your life

A big part of living your life using acceptance and commitment strategies is the acceptance part.

Acceptance changes your life once you understand how to achieve it, but a lot of people struggle with how to do it.  

The first thing to understand that acceptance isn't something that you achieve through a cognitive process, you can't just decide to accept something and that is that.

It is instead, something that you do with your body rather than your head.

It is something that you feel rather than think.

To understand what acceptance is, first we need to look at forms of non-acceptance with a story about myself.

Before I started meditation and living my life using the tools and strategies of acceptance and commitment training I avoided all the things I didn't like about my life.

These were the unpleasant emotions such as sadness, feeling lost and stuck, empty inside, stress and anxiety. 

Instead of allowing myself to feel these emotions I'd avoid them.

I would daydream about my life and what it could be like; I would ruminate about the past and fantasise about the future. 

I would compare myself to others and ask why I couldn't be like them?

I would use gaming on the PlayStation and cannabis to zone myself out and avoid the problems in my life.

I don't know you personally, but you might use similar strategies but different tactics.

Replacing the behaviours above with something else, maybe keeping busying, exercising, drinking, binge-watching a TV series etc.

It isn't only the behaviour that is the problem but the context that it happens in, are you doing the behaviour to avoid something unpleasant? 

These behaviours worked in the short term but kept me stuck and going nowhere with my life.

I was afraid of actually looking at my life and having the difficult conversations with myself and others about what I wanted.

Setting me up for a list of unhealthy behaviours that took me further away from the person that I wanted to be.

What is acceptance?

You can't think your way to acceptance but if I asked you just to feel your experience you would try to apply a thought process to it. 

Perhaps thinking that acceptance means giving up or rolling over.

'I'll accept that my job is boring and unmotivating or my relationship is unloving.' 

But that keeps you stuck where you are.

Acceptance, however, is about looking at our lives and experiences as they truly are, without any judgement or labels about them.

It is about moving away from self-deception and towards reality. 

What don't you accept?

I was in a ten-year relationship that was ultimately very destructive for me and for my partner.

I was happy to accept the good things about the relationship and the good parts of my life, we had a nice lifestyle, plenty of money, nice apartment, and good friends.

But the struggle was with all the negative emotions in my life, the sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, grief and despair that I had around how unfulfilling my relationship was.

I avoided these feelings with gaming and drugs.

Ignoring your negative emotions not only causes you strain, but it can also cause you to start to stop feeling anything. 

One thing I hear a lot from my clients is  "I don't know what I feel, I don't feel anything at all".

This is because that you can't selectively zone out one emotion, to stop feeling sad, lost and empty you have just to stop feeling. 

It is like trying to fix the annoying leak in the bathroom by switching off the water supply to the whole house.

Yes, the leak stops but now you now can't take a refreshing shower in the morning.

When friends and family used to ask me if I was happy, I would say yes I was okay, I even went out of my way to tell people how happy I was.

I was ignoring my reality since the emotions were too painful to deal with, processing things in my head rather than through my feelings and emotions.

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” - C.G. Jung

Mindfulness is the first step to acceptance

There is a thing that happens when people go through my Activate Your Life programme. Around halfway through we hit a breakthrough point.

This also happens in other personal development programmes; any mindfulness teacher will probably also tell you the same thing, around halfway through people start to see the reality about themselves and their lives. 

Sometimes this is too big for them and they stop, falter and don't break through, many people drop out of mindfulness training at this point.

The truth is negative emotions are awakenings for you in a way that positive emotions can never be. 

If you look back on your life at the points where you suffered you can probably see that they were the points where you grew the most.

“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Letting go of control and identification

When we avoid or struggle with our negative feelings we also paradoxically over-identify with them. 

If you avoid sadness about your life by avoiding feeling sad ultimately your life becomes all about not feeling sad.

I remember once in a therapy session saying to my therapist;

"I hate feeling like this."

In that one sentence, I had identified with my feeling of sadness, I hate feeling sad because I am sad.

But when we stop struggling with our negative emotions, open up to them and explore them with curiosity we stop identifying with them. 

'I am sad' instead becomes 'I'm experiencing sadness' which is a whole different perspective.

“What would happen if you stopped fighting, and gave yourself permission to feel? Not just the good things, but everything?” ― R.J. Anderson, Ultraviolet

Acceptance makes change possible

Rather than make you less effective, acceptance makes change possible.

If you care about personal development, being happy and ultimately more effective in your life then acceptance is a requirement.

It is only through accepting where you are right now with compassion and without judgement can you start to move towards something better for yourself.

Again, paradoxically, rather than judging yourself negatively, accepting what you feel motivates you to change yourself.

“If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

Can I just think positive instead?

The popular positive thinking approach would have you believe that you can re-frame your negative thoughts and emotions to positive ones.

But again this is just another form of struggle of trying to change your thoughts and feelings.

Much of your thinking is just automatic reaction, if you have to apply positive thinking to be ok with a situation then that is a form of struggle.

I remember thinking that I was deeply unhappy with my relationship but at least I got x,y, and z so that made the unhappy parts ok.

When in fact it didn't, they weren't ok and trying to reframe it as a positive didn't change anything in the external world.

"My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations" - Michael J Fox

Acceptance isn't about dragging an emotional experience out

You probably know someone in your life who becomes their emotions. They bathe in them to the point of melancholy. 

Thinking that to rid themselves of sadness they need to hold on the feeling, give in to its desires and wants.

That to exhaust our negative emotions we need to feed them and prolong them. 

But this makes the mistake of giving in to our interpretations of our emotions instead of feeling them without thought.

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
― Dalai Lama XIV

Change is the only constant

Ultimately life is messy.

It is chaotic and unpredictable.

In fact change is the only thing that is constant.

Once we accept that we have a lot less control over our thoughts and emotions than we believe we can take responsibility for what is within our control. 

When it comes to changing our lives and who we are, acceptance is probably the hardest aspect to master.

No one likes to accept the negative sides of themselves.

But once we do accept our flaws, our emotions and our negative thoughts and see them for what they are, just thoughts and feelings that mean nothing unless we give them meaning.

Life becomes a whole lot easier to live.