Ruminating on how we think past events ought to have been — particularly negative or traumatic events — can hinder the healing process. It can reinforce or intensify the emotions attached to these events, making it more difficult to move forward.
One way we can shift away from negative thought patterns is to practice acceptance.
What is acceptance? Acceptance means fully acknowledging the facts of a situation and not fixating on how it shouldn't be that way. This mindset moves us away from often harsh judgement of ourselves and allows us to break away from thoughts of guilt or unfairness.
Practicing acceptance can be especially helpful for individuals living with mental illness.
In Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s cognitive behavioral therapy program and dual recovery intensive outpatient programs, patients learn to understand and develop the use of acceptance so they may more effectively cope with current challenges and difficult circumstances from the past. Lori Alford, a licensed clinical social worker, explains some of the ways she integrates acceptance into therapy.
“Our clients learn to develop self-awareness by bringing mindful awareness to breathing, thinking, emotions and physical sensations,” says Alford. “They learn to notice judgments and when they're boosting negative emotional states by not accepting what is happening. Clients also perform exercises in which they tease apart what they can and cannot control.” In groups, patients are encouraged to practice using the language of acceptance — switching statements such as “This shouldn't have happened” to “This is how it happened.” With these and other acceptance strategies, they grow in their ability to calm the internal struggle and focus on making productive and healthy next steps.
Patients from the intensive outpatient programs offer their insight into what acceptance means to them and how it helps them manage life’s challenges.
Several patients explain that accepting a situation is not about denying your feelings about it, but rather knowing that we cannot change the past or control others; we can only control ourselves. Instead of fighting the feelings attached to something, acknowledge them and move forward. It doesn’t mean loving everything you’ve done, just knowing that it is what it is.
Here are some other things they would like to share:
“For me, acceptance means surrendering to win.” — Angela
“When I accept I cannot control other people, events or situations, it’s like putting those negative thoughts in a balloon and watching them go. I feel light and clear-headed.” — Monique
“Full self-acceptance can lay the foundations for positive self-esteem. By simply acknowledging and accepting things, you can begin the process of meaningful self-improvement.” — Brenda
“Understand that it will take time and practice to develop true acceptance. It doesn’t happen in an instant.” — David
How to practice acceptance
- Pay attention to internal cues. Notice when you focus on how something or someone should or shouldn't be, or on how unfair things are. Notice how that feels emotionally and how it feels physically within your body.
- Develop the language of acceptance. Move away from thinking in terms of what others should or shouldn’t be doing or how things should be fair. Have readymade phrases or coping statements to help you disengage from that internal struggle. “Here’s what happened and here’s what I can do or not do.”
- Let your body help you by relaxing tense muscles and physically loosening up while you meditate on something you’re having a hard time accepting. Start with small things that don’t upset you too much. Try breathing in acceptance and breathing out resistance.
- Repeat these steps if you notice yourself getting overcritical, dissatisfied or judgmental about people, places and situations. Pay attention to your emotional state that goes along with this, perhaps grumpiness, anxiety or deep sadness. Notice, too, where you feel it in your body. Practice breathing and relaxing, and work on adjusting the unhelpful thinking that keeps you stuck.