Psychological Acceptance – What is it and how it can help.

What is Psychological Acceptance?

Psychological acceptance refers to the process of embracing thoughts, emotions and other internal experiences without judgement and without trying to change them. To understand psychological acceptance well, it can help to understand experiential avoidance.

 

What is experiential avoidance?

If these internal experiences are distressing, accepting or embracing them can seem counter intuitive and quite difficult initially. The most common response to distressing subjective experiences is avoidance or suppression. This is quite instinctive and similar to the recoil of our hand if we touch a hot surface; we try to remove unpleasant emotions and experiences out of mind.

This has been described as “experiential avoidance” and is defined as ““the attempt to alter the form, frequency, or intensity of private experiences such as thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, or memories, even when doing so is costly, ineffective, or unnecessary” (Hayes,Levin, Plumb, Boulanger, and Pistorello 2013). 

Experiential avoidance is a struggle that still costs us energy and is so often not effective. By moving towards psychological acceptance utilising mindfulness (focusing our attention on the present) we build our capacity to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

 

Is psychological acceptance the same as just ‘giving up?’

It is important to note that psychological acceptance is not the same as passively accepting things or giving up, or passively resigning to a situation that is not okay. Acceptance has been eloquently explained by Jon Zin Bat:

“It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is —especially when you don’t like it — and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.”   (Zin Bat 2005)

 

How can I develop the practice of psychological acceptance?  

  • To help build these skills we can use guided mindfulness practices – there are lots of great (and free) apps available to download (e.g., Smiling Mind or Insight Timer).
  • Another key skill is to develop our ability to be grateful. So often we don’t notice the positives in our lives. There has been a great deal of research to support the benefits of practicing gratefulness (e.g. Achor 2011, Rusk,Vell-Broderick, Waters 2016; Safronova, et. al. 2016; Liao et. al 2018). 

To notice enjoyable moments across our day we do need to slow down and not rush from one thing to the next. I suggest writing down these moments, allowing ourselves to focus on them and appreciate them.

 

What are the benefits of psychological acceptance?

There are many studies showing that slowing down, being mindful, and experiencing and expressing gratitude creates new neural pathways and these connections are strengthened as we continue to practice these skills ensuring that they are more likely to occur in the future. In time we will then notice that we are happier, calmer and experiencing more joy.

Written by:
Cheryl Gale,
Psychologist,
Proactive Health & Movement

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