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Why should I ‘accept’ my emotions?

Posted: 25/04/2014

Accepting emotions, particularly negative ones, is a central tenant or at the least a starting point of many therapies: mindfulness therapies, compassion-focused therapies, and schema therapy for example. Many people struggle with this idea of acceptance, particularly when we are talking about accepting unwanted emotions or physical sensations like depression, anxiety, trauma, or pain. The very word ‘acceptance’ conjures up ideas of agreeing with something or passively resigning oneself to having these feelings. Understandably a sense of hopelessness may arise.

However, in therapy terms, the concept of ‘acceptance’ is anything but passive or resigned. It is an active stance of opening up to and becoming fully aware of your feelings moment-to-moment, experiencing them wholly and exploring them with curiosity. This requires a good deal of courage and determination, and throwing away the rule book of human nature that recommends we cope with negative feelings by trying to ignore, avoid, detach, or distance ourselves from them.

Indeed it is our ways of coping with that can become problematic and can reinforce or add to our misery. Often this is the starting point in therapy – when people have tried out a number of ways to solve their difficulties but become stuck – in other words ‘the solution becomes the problem’. Take anxiety – it is widely recognised that avoiding our fears is a natural and understandable short-term solution, but in the long run avoidance can start to put limits on how we live, the choices we make and ultimately affect our quality of life and the lives of others. Similarly with strong feelings of depression, we may find ourselves trying to fight these off, block them, or push past them, carrying on regardless. Of course this can work to a point and help us to function in our daily lives, however our feelings are powerful indicators that all is not well underneath and they require our full attention.

The poem ‘The Guest House’ (by Jelaluddin Rumi) captures the essence of acceptance. Rumi refers to humans as a guest house for a range of visiting ‘guests’ or emotions. He encourages us greet all emotional experiences, positive and negative, with equanimity – treating each as an equally welcome guest which we can learn from. (http://allpoetry.com/poem/8534703-The-Guest-House-by-Mewlana-Jalaluddin-Rumi)

Once we can fully experience and understand our feelings, what causes them, how they change moment to moment, then we automatically command greater control over them. With this clarity we can then decide on how best to manage a difficult situation, how best to take care of ourselves and others, and how to get our needs met.

Samantha Leaity, Clinical Psychologist, Become Psychology

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