Expansion and willingness to feel – just don’t call it acceptance!
Following recent communications with someone who knows a fair bit about this (thank you LC), I am coming to a fuller understanding of why acceptance can be so darn difficult to, well, accept.
So, let’s forget the word. Let’s call it what it is in ACT, and that is expansion: finding a way to make space for/around difficult emotions, feelings and sensations. And it is willingness: being willing to feel those difficult emotions, feelings and sensations that come up and are an inevitable part of being human.
There really is no better alternative to willingness that I know of, because whether you’re willing to have these feelings or not you’re going to have them. Fact. If you’re willing to have them, and if you can make a little space for them, at least you’re not at war with yourself. And they will come and go either way, but they will often hang around for longer if you struggle against them.
Russ Harris (top bloke) writes about an imaginary struggle switch in the brain. When it’s switched on this means you’re going to struggle against any emotional or physical pain that shows up. You’ll try your best to avoid it or get rid of it, and occasionally this will work, for a bit, and at other times it won’t. It’s a bit like struggling in quicksand – completely understandable but not all that helpful.
Alternatively, if you can imagine the struggle switch is turned off, whatever feelings show up it’s more like ‘Ahhh, OK, there’s a knot in my stomach, my chest is tight and my palms are sweating, and I can still get on with doing what matters’. The emergence of difficult ‘stuff’ doesn’t have to completely take over, you can still control your arms and legs and put your energy into doing something meaningful and life enhancing. So with the struggle switch off, sometimes we feel good, sometimes we don’t, it depends on who we are and what’s going on in our lives.
With the struggle switch on it’s like a life interruptor and an emotional amplifier. And it’s exhausting.
And some of the things people do to try and control how they feel can actually make life so much more difficult and complicated. For example, if you drink to excess in an attempt to not feel sad or lonely, in a few hours time you might also get to feel bad about saying and doing regrettable things, upsetting people, bingeing on crisps and wasting money. You might/might not have had some fun but the thing that was bothering you before is likely to still be bothering you now, with the addition of a hangover and having some awkward explaining to do. Feeling sad, lonely, edgy, afraid etc. can be borne, believe it or not, and there might be some helpful information in there about what is really important to you.
Beyond the world of ACT the definition of acceptance is much broader, and I believe this is the reason why people struggle with the concept. What the word acceptance means or implies in general usage is not what it means in ACT. Even so, even in general usage I don’t think it means wallowing in your pain, allowing yourself to become completely overwhelmed by it, liking it, wanting it or choosing to suffer, and it is not giving up on ever feeling any better.
You can practice expansion and willingness and commit to engaging fully in your life. Or you can carry on struggling in that quicksand – it’s your call.