Accepting What Is

Earlier this year I completed my Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) training, which is a mindfulness-based approach that encourages us to accept unwanted thoughts and feelings that cannot be controlled. Acceptance is not a resignation, rather an empowering willingness to be with what is. And recently, I have found myself sitting, more and more, with uncomfortable experiences, rather than resisting or struggling.

 

As a culture, we are afraid of experiencing negative feelings such as anger, sadness and fear. We avoid them because they can be painful. Psychologists have a theory that we are driven by the desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain. These motivations are often inexplicably connected.

 

Our emotions are like little messengers giving us feedback on a situation. On the one hand, fear and anxiety can be powerful forces that kick us into committed action. On the other, they can quickly become debilitating factors that stop us moving forward or direct us to numbing substances like alcohol or drugs.

 

When the feeling becomes uncomfortable or unsettling, our natural response is to quell it in whatever way we know how. But, it is in our struggle to resist the discomfort and anxiety that the feeling grows stronger, more powerful.

 

I often explain this to my clients with a metaphor about a small child trying to get the attention of its carer. At first a child may shout, then scream in order to get his voice heard. As he is ignored or told to go away, the child might go away for a few moments, but sooner or later he will scream louder, wailing at the top of his voice demanding the attention it wants. Once the child has been heard and acknowledged he will quickly quieten down and allow the carer to get on with their day free from negative energy.

 

In our effort to minimise pain, we’re only temporarily solving it and amplifying the problem.

 

Learning to sit with the uncomfortable feelings, to acknowledge them even, means learning a healthy way to cope with negative emotions.

 

For me, the past couple of weeks have been intense, (exciting without a doubt!) but full on: starting new classes, planning for workshops, creating connections and working with more clients each week. My typical response to this overwhelm would be to bury it deep somewhere or ignore it completely, pretend I felt fine. But this time I reminded myself that it is normal, totally normal in fact, to have intense feelings when you’re doing something new or big, especially when this something is important to you. So instead of following my old habits, I allowed myself to slow down and turn towards the uncomfortable experience.

 

And sure, sitting with anxiety, fear or pain may not be one of those deeply relaxing or blissful meditations, but it is profound. Leaning into our experiences moment by moment, pleasant, neutral or painful, teaches us that life is in a constant state of flux and the best way to enjoy it, is by being present. Just as our thoughts come and go, emotions and feelings too naturally pass. It is okay, normal and natural to have an array of emotions. We are allowed to feel grief, sadness, anger or guilt.

 

Negative emotions are a part of life and not something that should be feared. Trying to avoid or resist this truth will only intensify the pain. By reframing your relationship with the feeling, and by tolerating it, we can live in harmony with all our felt experiences, trusting that it won’t be around for long.  Just like the child throwing his tantrum, when you allow an emotion to be heard or felt, it will start to quieten down.

 

When I turned towards and accepted my uncomfortable feelings I found that what I had been worrying about no longer felt as overwhelming or unsurmountable. My unwanted anxiety began to settle, and although it did not magically disappear, it was certainly less intense.

 

Below is a simple meditation that you can practice that encourages you to let go of your struggle and instead welcome the anxiety (or unpleasant emotion) to be truly felt.

 

  1. Relax the body and mind with your breath
  2. Call to mind something difficult that you are going through and willing to work through in this meditation.
  3. Become aware of the feelings and sensations that arise in the body. What does this emotion feel like? Where do you notice it the most?
  4. Notice any desire to get rid of the experience.
  5. Come back to acknowledging your emotion without judgement.
  6. Become aware of the many layers and sensations that make up this felt sensation.
  7. If your mind wanders or resists, gently guide it back to the feeling, training your mind to be accepting of negative feelings. WIth practice it will become less challenging and a more instinctive way of being.
  8. Thank your emotion for being present.
  9. Return to your breath as you gently become aware of the room around you and open your eyes whenever you are ready.

 

Have a go and let me know how you get on!

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