Unpleasant feelings are normal; why worsen your situation by fighting them? Through mindful acceptance we can find peace even in the discomfort.
What brings peace of mind is different for each of us.
Yet, studies confirm that each of us can enhance our peace of mind by practicing greater acceptance of our natural, and sometimes difficult, emotions. Each of us carries around an inner pot of ‘emotional stew’ filled with flavors both pleasant and unpleasant — sweet, spicy, bitter, tart, and savory.
Two recent studies speak to the value of enhancing our well-being by accepting those flavors with less judgment and reaction.
Accepting Difficult Emotions
The first study from the University of California at Berkeley was published in August 2018 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study involved 1,000 participants and supports the common- sense idea that feeling bad about feeling bad can actually make you feel worse. The pressure of worrying about not feeling upbeat — feeling anxious about feeling anxious — can take its toll. Researchers found, however, that people who demonstrated greater acceptance of their natural emotions experienced greater well-being.
The second study was a cross-cultural study of 2,324 university students from eight countries conducted by an international team of researchers from universities in the US, South Korea, and Israel. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology; General, also in August of 2018. Its findings are consistent with the findings of the UC Berkeley study which found that people tend to be happier when they allow themselves to simply feel and accept the natural emotions that come to them in their everyday living — including anxious and unpleasant emotions. The idea is that maybe we simply get more comfortably used to such emotions and they become less threatening, sort of like watching a gray cloud pass along its way.
Mindful Acceptance of Emotions
There are many tools for dealing with difficult emotions. Modifying our thinking habits, changing harmful behavior, engaging in physical activity, spiritual practice, and professional counseling and healthcare all have merit, but sometimes they’re not enough. We can do any one of these things, and still be left with the residual natural emotional discomfort and pain that comes with simply being human.
Rather than adding to our pain through the greater mental struggle and turmoil that comes with resistance, we can lessen such added pain through mindful acceptance: paying attention to emotions without judgment.
With acceptance, we work to modify our relationship with natural internal events.
We strive to be open and accepting of those events, rather than bent on avoiding them. Just as we accept some of the natural aches and pains of our physical body, we begin to view our innate, difficult-to-change emotions as a part of life, rather than as a problem to be solved. Unpleasant emotions that do not benefit us are akin to ‘emotional noise’ that is neither useful nor pleasant but can be accepted and lived with without stress.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT was developed in the United States in 1980s through the work of Steven Hayes at the University of Nevada, Reno. The therapy formalizes some of the basic elements of emotional acceptance — especially acceptance of those difficult emotions that can’t be easily influenced through other means. ACT is based on the principle of noticing and accepting our internal mental events, rather than fighting them or trying to get rid of them.
Or as a Zen master once said, “we can invite our fear to tea.”
A few of the principles of ACT include:
- Developing the skill of monitoring our natural feelings from a ‘third-party’ observer perspective utilizing the ‘transcendental’ part of us able to observe our thoughts, emotions, etc.
- Focusing on our relationship to our thoughts and feelings rather than their content.
- Mindfully accepting unpleasant, difficult-to-change emotions without judgment and reaction.
- Living a life fully committed to our core personal values, regardless of the unpleasant emotions that may come and go.
ACT has demonstrated clinical success in helping people deal more effectively with the emotional strain of everyday living. The principles of emotional acceptance practice have merit for all of us and can be a beneficial option when other approaches are not enough.
In the world of professional psychology, exposure-based procedures have become a helpful tool for the treatment of emotional anxiety. People are often able to become less fearful of snakes, heights, social events, and other personally difficult situations by gradually being exposed to them in various ways by relaxing in their presence with pictures, in imagination, and in their actual presence. This also applies to thoughts and emotions themselves.
This takes practice. Like any skill, whether playing the piano, swimming, or learning a new language, we need to practice emotional acceptance on a reasonably frequent basis before it actually becomes a skill. As the Dalai Lama expressed in his book In My Own Words, mindfulness and acceptance skills come from practice, not intellectual understanding or wishful thinking. Good reason to consider tending your emotional stew with less reaction and judgment, through ongoing conscious acts of acceptance.
You may also enjoy reading Amazing Grace: Experiencing the extraordinary within the ordinary by Adyashanti.