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Demystifying the 'Acceptance' in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as the word “act”, not as the initials A.C.T), aims to maximize human potential for a rich, meaningful, and fulfilling life. The core concepts in ACT are to accept our internal experience of discomfort and to commit to taking action that enriches and elevates our lives. In my experience communicating to family, friends, and clients about my work incorporating ACT approaches, I have found the ‘Acceptance’ component of ACT to be often misunderstood. In fact, many have expressed the feeling that the term ‘Acceptance’ in this context is somewhat invalidating and dismissive. This blog will focus on demystifying the ‘Acceptance' component of ACT, which, when understood accurately, can lead to cultivating health, vitality, and well-being.

‘Acceptance’ means opening up to and making room for painful thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without getting into a struggle with them. The more we can open up to, and give space to our experiences, the easier it is for our feelings to come and go without draining our emotional or psychological energy or holding us back from our values. In order for us to truly open up to our experiences, we must recognize that pain is an inevitable part of life. Furthermore, we must come to terms with the fact that we do not have ultimate control over many of our internal experiences and external circumstances.

‘Acceptance’ is not a euphemism for “get over it”, “too bad, suck it up”, or “move on already.” This, of course, would be extremely invalidating. Likewise, acceptance is not an act of throwing-up-your-hands in a begrudging recognition that you're giving up, or "accepting" the reality of your situation. While we may not have ultimate control over many things in our lives, we can still hold ourselves accountable to taking action that is consistent with our values. This is also why the word "willingness" is used synonymously with "acceptance". We can make the active choice to 'dial up' our willingness to allow for a painful part of our experience to be there to free us from the struggle against our pain.

For example. imagine someone was applying for a new job. In this case, "acceptance" would entail opening up to, rather than avoiding, the distressing thoughts that come up throughout the application process (e.g., “I’m not good enough”, “I’m going to fail”), memories of past career challenges, and concerns about one’s performance in the upcoming interview. This type of acceptance emphasizes opening up the distress or discomfort that might be showing up while also committing to the personal responsibility and accountability to engage your values. Choosing to go to the beach the day before an interview instead of preparing because you are “accepting" that the outcome is beyond your full control may sound like ‘acceptance’, but it may be inconsistent with the ‘Commitment’ component of the ACT model. The ‘Commitment’ portion of ACT emphasizes committing to taking action that is consistent with our values that leads us to living a meaningful and fulfilling life. In this context, we are not "accepting" discomfort for the sake of acceptance. Rather, we are "accepting" discomfort in the service of the committed actions towards your pursuit of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose.

A growing body of empirical data indicates that cultivating acceptance and openness toward our experiences is a highly effective approach for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and other psychological challenges. ACT is an experiential process that utilizes metaphors to facilitate the development of psychological strategies such as openness. If you have been having difficulty creating space for the sources of pain in your life and have found yourself avoiding confronting your pain, ACT may be an effective approach to help you navigate these challenges.


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