Acceptance is one of the most important skills you can master regarding your mental health. Whether you’re learning how to live with grief, getting back into dating after a breakup, learning a new skill, working on your fitness goals, or assessing your strengths and areas of growth as a parent, you will need to master the ability to accept your uncomfortable emotions. This acceptance work will help provide you with kindness and compassion for yourself. It can also strengthen your relationships, help you succeed in your career, and keep you in alignment with your goals and values.
Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Nevada and a renowned scholar on acceptance, mindfulness, and values, extols the importance of acceptance. Hayes remarks, “Simply said, acceptance is the ability to feel the full range of your thoughts and emotions without needless avoidance or clinging in the service of what matters the most to you” (The Bittersweet Art of Acceptance).
If you’re one of the many who struggle with managing your emotions — through avoidance or detaching from distress — you’re not alone. Accepting and working through emotions is one of the most significant barriers to mental wellness and success in many other personal goals. If you struggle with this, you’ll also notice:
- You feel stuck ruminating on the past or worry about the future and miss out on the present moment.
- You may feel controlled by limiting thoughts and beliefs like “I’m a failure” or “I can’t do anything right” and low self-esteem due to over-identification with these negative, judgmental thoughts.
- You try but fail to avoid your negative thoughts, emotions, and memories. It may feel like a beach ball you’re trying to hold underwater but keeps popping back to the surface.
- You feel like you are not reaching your full potential, as you avoid actions that could lead to discomfort.
Emotional acceptance is hard, but you can practice and improve. Mindfulness and meditation are great tools to help you work through and manage your emotions. When you learn to respond mindfully and accept your emotions, you change the effect the emotion has on you, thus reducing distress. Instead of feeling ruled by your emotions, you can learn to simply observe them, make space for them, and attend to them with curiosity and nurturance. You’ll be able to discern how your feelings can be helpful instead of harmful, which is an empowering skill.
Remember, emotional acceptance isn’t about trying to change your feelings; instead, it’s about getting better at feeling and embracing all of your emotions as simply part of what it means to be human.
Emotional Acceptance Exercise
This exercise will guide you through a series of mindful acceptance prompts and help you reflect on your experiences. There are no right or wrong answers, so please be patient and open with yourself as you follow along
Plan to set aside at least 20 minutes for this exercise.
You may choose to follow along with your thoughts or by journaling. An emotion or mood journal will help you slow down and absorb the experience more deeply so you can reflect later.
Find a comfortable spot to sit and take a few moments to slow your breath and calm your body to prepare yourself to engage with some of your more uncomfortable emotions. Long, deep breathing helps your brain and body to relax. To create long, deep breaths, try breathing in to the count of four, briefly holding, and breathing out to the count of six.
Now, consider a recent situation where you felt a strong emotion. Maybe it was sadness, grief, or disappointment. Perhaps it was anxiety or fear. Maybe it was anger, hurt, or frustration. What was the situation? Do you remember the trigger? What was the worst part of the event for you? What are you sensing now? Which emotions are coming up? What sensations are present in your body?
Pause and let yourself tune into this experience of emotion and write out whatever stands out to you.
As the emotion arises and sensations strengthen in your body, simply observe them with acceptance and curiosity. Allow the feelings to be there in any form they take. Notice as the sensations change from moment to moment. Sometimes they are stronger and sometimes weaker. Scan your body and note where the sensations are strongest, describing what they feel like to the best of your ability. Are they heavy and weighing you down? Are they creating a tightness that makes you feel like you are being pulled apart? Do they have a temperature hot or cold as they spread through you? Do they make your stomach drop or cause you to feel claustrophobic? Just notice with curiosity.
As you observe, you may notice your mind coming up with judgments about you or your experience, like, “This is too much for me” or “I’m weak for feeling this way.” Often when thoughts like this come up, we accept them as truth, and they amplify our emotional distress. Instead, step back and attempt to observe these thoughts simply as thoughts. They are neither true nor false but just a product of the emotional lens from which you are currently looking. Try imagining that they are about four feet in front of you, and you are looking at them instead of from them. Observing our thoughts and feelings like this helps us detach from them, taking away their power.
Pause to notice what thoughts are coming up the strongest for you right now. Consider saying this out loud or noting it in your journal. “I am having the thought that… I can see this thought brings me distress. This is just a thought and does not help me see myself or this situation as they are in this present moment.” Then reflect on what impact this simple reframe has on your experience.
As you observe, please do your best to bring an attitude of tranquility and gentleness as you accept and make space for your experience exactly as it is right now. There is nothing to be fixed, no particular state to be achieved. You might offer yourself words of compassion and empathy here like “I don’t like this feeling, but I have room for it,” or “It’s uncomfortable but temporary.” You may also say to yourself something like, “I can tolerate it while it is here, ” or “This is hard, but I can do hard things.” Accepting distress is not about having to like your emotional discomfort, choosing to wallow in negativity, or being resigned to feeling miserable. Instead, accepting distress is about giving up your struggle with the uncomfortable emotion by allowing it to be exactly what it is. While experiencing distress, you choose to engage with yourself with patience, curiosity, and compassion instead of judgment, fear, or shame.
Pause here and let yourself reflect on what you’re noticing, and then ask yourself what is difficult about allowing your emotions to be present exactly as they are and what is helpful.
Next, soften your experience of these distressing emotions even more, not seeking to change them in any way, but instead, hold them with kindness and nurturance the way a loving parent would hold their child who just fell and scraped their knee.
As each emotion surfaces, turn first to the emotion, name it, and then to yourself. Say, “That’s worry,” “That’s loneliness,” “That’s grief.” ‘”I can see how heavy it is to hold these things. I’m so sorry you’re in this pain right now. I’m here with you.” Consider saying this out loud or noting it in your journal, letting the comforting words sink in and take root in your body.
Consider placing one or both of your hands on the area of your body where the physical sensations are strongest and visualizing the form that comfort might take for you in this moment. For example, you might imagine the cool blue of a calm ocean tide washing over you or the warmth of a sunbeam radiating onto you. Imagine that comforting form flowing from your hands into your body and surrounding the distressing emotions you are holding there. Remember, you don’t need them to change, but acknowledge that as you observe and accept your emotions and distress as a part of you, that part of you is also worthy of comfort and soothing.
Take another minute to focus on your breathing and check in with the sensations in your body. Breathe in to the count of four and out to the count of six. As you’re breathing, do one last body scan. If there’s any remaining tension, breathe into it, and ask your body to release its struggle against it. Allow it to be there.
Well done! Take a moment to congratulate and thank yourself for spending this time practicing accepting your most uncomfortable emotions and providing compassion and comfort for yourself while you’re experiencing distress. As we close this exercise, spend a few minutes journaling about what this exercise was like for you– the good, the bad, and the noteworthy. Then think about what you can do for yourself the rest of the day or week to continue showing yourself how worthy you are of love, care, and support.
Need more help?
Accepting your emotions takes lots of time and practice, so remember to be patient with yourself. With time and practice, managing your feelings will get easier. If you want to strengthen your mindfulness and meditation skills, you may also consider trying yoga or subscribing to an app like Headspace or Calm, where you can explore these skills at your own pace. You can return to (or download) this exercise when new or challenging emotions arise.
You may notice that despite your best efforts, you still struggle with emotional acceptance and detaching from distressing thoughts and emotions. Exploring your barriers and processing your history more deeply may be helpful. In this case, therapy is an excellent option for you. Reach out to us at In Session Psych to get started.