Bad stuff happens: all of us have to face frustration, disappointments, rejection, loss, and failure. We can try to change circumstances we don’t like, but that strategy doesn’t always work and sometimes isn’t advisable. In those cases, acceptance therapy techniques are a great alternative.
When disappointments pile up
Terry has had a tough year. Late last winter, the landlord raised her rent by 25%, which really stretched her budget. Then, she got into a petty disagreement with her sister, who hardly talks to her anymore.
Her employer reorganized mid-year, so now she has a supervisor she doesn’t like and the workload of two people for the same pay. Last month, she tore a tendon in her ankle and has had to temporarily give up her exercise routine. This week, she had to say goodbye to her 14 year old dog whose incurable health issues became too much.
It’s easy to let frustrations overwhelm us and overshadow the good things in our life.
Ever notice disappointments and the stress that accompanies those losses can run in streaks? It’s easy to let those frustrations overwhelm us and overshadow the good things that are going on in our life. The emotional toll that takes can leave us depressed, easily angered, and particularly vulnerable to lashing out in hurtful or violent ways.
Changing what we can, knowing what we cannot
Changing our circumstances is a good strategy when it is within our power to do so. With enough time, Terry can move, find a different job, or get a new puppy. These things are within her power to change, or at least influence the outcome, because they only involve her.
We get into trouble when we try to control other people.
We get into trouble, however, when we try to control our circumstances by controlling other people. It’s fine to ask for other’s cooperation in making things the way we’d like them to be. She can request to have her workload reduced and attempt to reconcile with her sister. It is, however, still up to the other person to choose to comply with our request.
Trying to preside over other’s thoughts, opinions, or actions goes too far. That’s especially true if we use anger, intimidation, put-downs, making them feel “crazy”, threatening them, or punishing them. Whenever managing our environment means managing another person against their will, then we’ve crossed into something we don’t have a right to do.
Applying an acceptance therapy process
When we’ve done all we can do within our own power to manage our circumstances, things sometimes still won’t be the way we want. So what can we do? That’s when borrowing a technique from acceptance therapy becomes useful. The acceptance therapy process is counterintuitive, so let me explain.
Active acceptance is allowing our thoughts and feelings to be as they are—pleasant or painful—while making room for them. Rather than struggling and trying to get rid of them, we let them come and go naturally. Acceptance works by showing us that our thoughts and feelings are just words in our language and not necessarily realities.
Acceptance works by showing us that our thoughts and feelings are just words in our language and not necessarily realities.
I think of acceptance as not taking uncomfortable thoughts and feelings too seriously. Like a stranger in a waiting room, we are aware that they are there, but go about our own business regardless of their presence. We do not need to interact with this stranger. In fact, we can get on with our lives best if we don’t waste our time on them.
This doesn’t mean we resign ourselves to living a miserable life or liking whatever is causing our suffering. That is passive acceptance or resignation. Active acceptance is acknowledging the disappointment, then making a decision to act in a way that moves our life forward.
Acceptance has many forms
There are many, many ways of thinking about the acceptance therapy process—different ones will make sense to different people. Frequently they use metaphors, paradoxes, and experiential exercises. They are often are fun, creative, and clever. Here are a few variations of acceptance therapy you can apply to your uncomfortable thought or feeling:
- See it as a passenger on the bus. It is on the bus, but you are still in control of the bus.
- Think of it as being inside of you. Give it permission to be there. Rather than trying to get rid of it or restricting it, envision opening up around it and giving it all the room it needs.
- Hold it gently, with compassion.
- Observe it like a curious scientist would observe some new object. What is this object like: liquid, solid, or gas? How big? How heavy? What temperature? What shape? What color?
- Think of it being on a cloud on a windy day, or a car driving in front of your house. It is there, but soon, it simply passes by.
- See it as a broadcast from a doom and gloom radio station. Or a warning from a “don’t get killed” machine. Or a pitch from a slick salesperson. Or propaganda from a fascist dictator. It is sending a message, but message is not balanced and not always in your best interest to listen.
- If all of these thoughts and feelings were put into a book or movie, what would you call it? Naming your thought or feeling takes its power away and puts it into a more balanced place.
What is a situation that you face that is inconvenient, disappointing, or unfortunate? What can you do that is within your power to change this situation? What parts are not within your power? How could accepting your uncomfortable thought, then acting to improve your life, make your situation better?