Three Ways Acceptance Helps You Work with Difficult Emotions

Welcoming and letting tough emotions be—instead of pushing them away—might be the key to riding out unpleasant experiences.

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People often stumble over the concept of acceptance as an approach for dealing with difficult emotions and mind states. In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) groups that I’ve led, this predictably comes up around the fourth or fifth session as participants say “How can I accept this pain?” or “I want to feel fewer of these difficult emotions, not more!” These reactions reflect an underlying calculation that even though trying to avoid or push away negative thoughts and feelings can be exhausting, the strategy has worked in the past, so… why risk using a different and unfamiliar strategy?

In these moments, rather than answer this question directly, I find it helpful to remind myself of three simple points:

1. Allowing negative emotions to exist in our lives—for the moment—does not mean that we’ve chosen not to take action. The concept of acceptance, as introduced in MBCT, is intended to describe the possibility of developing a different relationship to experience, one that is characterized by allowing an experience and letting it be. Allowing difficult feelings to be in awareness means registering their presence before making a choice about how to respond to them. It takes a real commitment and involves a deliberate movement of attention. Importantly, “allowing” is not the same as being resigned or passive or helpless.

2. Denying that a negative mindset is taking place is more risky for your mental health. The opposite of allowing is actually quite risky. Being unwilling to experience negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations is often the first link in a mental chain that can lead to automatic, habitual, and critical patterns of mind becoming re-established. You can see this when someone says “I’m stupid to think like this” or “I should be strong enough to cope with that.” By contrast, shifting the basic stance toward experience, from one of “not wanting” to one of “opening,” allows this chain reaction of habitual responses to be altered at the first link. Thus, “I should be strong enough” shifts to “Ah, fear is here” or “Judgment is present.”

3. Acceptance helps you work through each unpleasant experience. The third is that the practices of MBCT offer concrete ways for cultivating a stance of “allowing and letting be” in the midst of difficult experiences. In fact, often people “know” intellectually that it might be helpful to be more loving, caring, and accepting toward themselves and what they are feeling, but have very little idea how to do it. These capacities are unlikely to be produced merely by an effort of will. Instead, they require working through the body with repeated practice over time to notice things, like anxiety, may show up as tightness in the chest, or sadness as heaviness in the shoulders.

Bringing attention/awareness to the sensations that accompany difficult experiences offers the possibility of learning to relate differently to such experiences in each moment. In time, this practice of working through the body may allow people to realize, through their own experiential practice, that they can allow unpleasant experiences and still be okay.