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Foundations of Mindfulness: Acceptance

November 23, 2021

Acceptance. It’s easy to talk about, but as anyone who’s ever waded into its waters knows – it’s a whole other thing to embrace the attitude of acceptance from the inside out.

For many of us, it can be hard to accept things as they are, as true acceptance often only comes after feeling our full range of emotions, from sadness and anxious thoughts to frustration or anger. But suppressing or distracting ourselves from those negative feelings doesn’t, in fact, help us move through them. Instead, University of Texas at Austin research suggests suppressing our negative emotions can actually make them stronger (1).

Listen to a preview of Roger Nolan’s Foundations of Mindfulness: Acceptance

Many reading might find yourselves thinking, “What’s the point in feeling bad about it? It’s not going to change anything.”

You’re right – it can be scary to feel all the emotions we have going on inside. Even scarier: the idea that we won’t be able to climb out of.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case with acceptance. When we give ourselves permission to feel without judgment and accept the world and ourselves as we are, we enable ourselves to move through and let go of these moments.

What is Acceptance?

The attitude of acceptance can be defined as accepting things as they are in the present moment, without judgment. It is a core component of mindfulness, alongside the principles of non-striving, letting go, self-trust, generosity, non-judgment, and the beginner’s mind.  

Avoiding uncomfortable emotions is understandable. But judging our experience, distracting ourselves, or suppressing our feelings doesn’t help us heal. To heal, we must feel and validate the weight of our experience, so we can come to terms and begin moving forward mentally, emotionally, and physically.

It’s the cornerstone of change. Before you can change something, you must see and accept it for what it is. It’s the necessary precursor to understanding, planning, and taking mindful action towards our desired impact.

What Acceptance is not.

Many people worry that acceptance means giving up or letting go of our goals. But acceptance is not a passive act of resignation. It’s the fundamental first step to change. When we don’t accept the world as it is, we often create tension – in ourselves, our relationships, and even at work – by trying to force situations to be how we want them.

Acceptance isn’t about avoiding growth or resigning ourselves to the thought that things won’t change. On the contrary, it allows us to see and accept what is, so we can take appropriate and effective actions to meet reality where it is and carve our path forward from there.

Here’s a quick list of what acceptance isn’t:

  • Giving up on goals or letting go of dreams
  • Liking everything that happens
  • Abandoning your values and principles
  • Remaining silent in the face of injustice
  • Letting go of trying to change negative habits
  • Resigning yourself to things remaining as they are

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?

ACT is a talk therapy that encourages people to embrace their feelings and thoughts instead of fighting them or feeling guilty. As described by the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science ACT helps leverage “acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behavior change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility (2).” In other words, ACT seeks to help people develop mindfulness skills and learn to live a rich and meaningful life, even amidst suffering and pain (two constants we may never have full control over.)

As the name suggests, acceptance is a core component of ACT that targets our instinct to avoid negative thoughts or feelings. By accepting and allowing these more difficult moments to exist without trying to change or deny them, ACT helps encourage and motivate action (2).

Benefits of Practicing Acceptance

Aside from acceptance helping us move through unpleasant emotions and helping us create change, research suggests the attitude of acceptance may impact our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing as well.

Physical Wellbeing

Research suggests acceptance may support immune function, improve wound healing, and help relieve chronic pain.

In 2010 the International Association for the Study of Pain studied how acceptance affects chronic pain. They found the patients who engaged in their favorite activities despite their pain and didn’t view controlling or avoiding their pain as necessary to pursue their goals were the patients least likely to be distressed and disabled by their pain (3). They also were most likely to still be employed and used the health care system less (3).

Research suggests acceptance may also help regulate our stress response. According to one study, participants who practiced mindful acceptance of stress showed lower cortisol (AKA the stress hormone) and systolic blood pressure levels (4). Acceptance may also help relieve stress-related symptoms of lowered immune function, increased susceptibility to illness, slower healing, raised blood pressure and risk of heart disease, and more (5).

Mental & Emotional Wellbeing

Research also suggests acceptance can impact our mental and emotional lives. For instance, a University of Denver study found that students who learned to accept negative emotions experienced reduced negative moods and depressive symptoms when faced with high-stress triggers (6). It’s important to note that researchers observed this relief from negative moods in situations that prompted negative emotions, but not neutral emotions.

Another study exploring acceptance found that participants who consistently accepted daily stressors experienced lower negative emotional responses to stress. Amazingly, they found that for people who accepted their negative mental experiences, the link between acceptance and psychological health remained strong even after six months (7). Rather than judge our situations and mental experiences, we may be able to lessen the negative emotions brought on by our stressors and enable ourselves to take more effective action.

Tips to Cultivate Acceptance

As we said, it’s one thing to talk about acceptance and a whole other to embrace mindful acceptance as a way of life. If you’re struggling to accept something in your life, there are a number of low-stress ways you can begin to cultivate the attitude of acceptance.

1. Self Awareness

Your first step: self-awareness. To cultivate acceptance, it’s essential to figure out when, where, and how you resist your experience. What are the moments, experiences, or situations that are hard for you to accept? What does it feel like? Where do you feel it in your body? Do your reaction show patterns?

2. Self Regulation

Once you’re aware of where you’d like to foster more acceptance in your life, then comes rewriting habits to strengthen your ability to reframe negative experiences towards more positive ones. Breaking old habits can be tough so it takes practice! Acceptance isn’t about erasing your experience – it’s about learning that you don’t have to change what you feel but to move forward through your experience.

3. Practice

Here are some tools many have found helpful in the beginning stages of interrupting old patterns of reaction and lessening the weight of their emotional experience to create space for mindful acceptance.

  • Focus on your breath. Try following a 4-4-4-4 pattern, with 4 seconds breathing in, four seconds holding, 4 seconds breathing out, and four seconds holding.
  • Hold ice cubes in your hand or suck on a lemon! Strong physical sensations can act as grounding techniques that help disrupt and take us out of the intensity of our emotions. 
  • Use the mindfulness 5-4-3-2-1 technique. This is another grounding technique to help reduce emotional intensity by centering you in your senses. Begin by identifying 5 objects, 4 sounds, 3 textures, 2 smells, and 1 taste, till you feel centered in the present.

Cultivating Acceptance with Mindful Meditation

Mindful meditation can help ground you and foster acceptance in your daily life. While there are many meditation styles, almost all feature a willingness to accept what is without attempting to change it. Meditation offers the space to explore our thoughts and feelings with neutrality, so we can become more resilient and intentional in our reactions.

Looking for support cultivating the attitude of acceptance? 

Explore Muse’s collection of over 500 guided meditations to get started! With renowned meditation guides specializing in different styles of meditations to complement your intentions and goals – there’s sure to be something that resonates with you as you get started on your journey to acceptance with meditation.

 

References:

  1. Read: Psychologists find the meaning of aggression: ‘Monty Python’ scene helps research HERE >
  2. Explore: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy from ACBS HERE >
  3. Learn About: Acceptance of chronic pain: component analysis and a revised assessment method HERE >
  4. Discover: Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial HERE >
  5. Discover: Life Event, Stress and Illness HERE >
  6. Explore: Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms HERE >
  7. Discover: The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence HERE >
  8. Learn About: The Mindful Attitude of Acceptance 6 by Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Training HERE >

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