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Accepting the Tough Stuff: What To Do With Distressing Emotions

Steven Topper, LCPC

In her article on acceptance-based strategies and their long-term outcomes, Lila MacLellan asserts that the path to psychological well being is tied directly to acceptance. This may be something that has long been in the zeitgeist of Eastern cultures, as we can often cite ancient poets (MacLellan cites Rumi’s poem “The Guest House”, see below) for their depth of understanding around acceptance. Yet it’s mostly evaded our Western culture for a few notable reasons.

Today, if you go to the self-help section of the bookstore, you’ll likely find one common thread tying almost every book together: positivity. So much of our society is geared toward positivity- from The Secret to You Are a Badass, and even many of our mental healthcare strategies- and this thinking permeates into our daily lives. We are compelled to reach higher, be happier, and find joy in life. And while all of these things can bring us better psychological health, it may make those uncomfortable emotions that much more distressing. As MacLellan points out, “In a cultural age that’s decidedly pro-positivity, the pressure to suppress or camouflage negative feelings is real.” 

A few therapeutic traditions have harnessed acceptance-based strategies with strong empirical results. Both Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) have integrated acceptance into the therapy room. The long-term outcomes of such therapies suggest that acceptance of discomfort and darkness maye have lasting positive impacts in our lives. It can seem more paradoxical the longer we think about it. MacLellan explains that it, “ involves not trying to change how we are feeling, but staying in touch with your feelings and taking them for what they are.” When we practice this, research finds higher levels of life satisfaction by decreasing the impact our uncomfortable emotions have on us. Studies also find that acceptance can be a key contributor to increased mindfulness, and that acceptance makes us more resilient during times of difficulty. 

An important aspect to remember about acceptance is that it’s different from resignation. Acceptance doesn’t ask us to blindly acquiesce to negative situations. Instead, acceptance is context dependent and present moment oriented, so we accept the reality of the situation, just as it is right now. This can be the difference between accepting being fired from a job, and accepting that, “I’m a failure who got fired and can’t get anything right.” People often want to tell us we’ll learn from mistakes, or that it’s okay, and this also is not acceptance as it’s asking us to change some component of our experience to be more palatable. And, like almost all things that help us, acceptance is a skill. We may notice how easy it is to accept joy and calm, it may be helpful to practice accepting that those emotions aren’t likely to last. Then, when distressing emotions like anger and loneliness show up, our acceptance practice will allow us to note that these emotions won’t last either. As is often the case, art long ago arrived at the conclusion science has only begun to support. Here is Rumi’s poem:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

If you think moving toward increased acceptance would be beneficial, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

Citation: Lila MacLellan. Accepting Your Darkest Emotions Is the Key to Psychological Health. Quartz Magazine. 23 July 207

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