Learn to Unhook: Open Up
With the word "acceptance" being in the title of "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy", it's no surprise that acceptance is a core component to this therapy. But what exactly does acceptance mean? For some, when they think of acceptance they think of someone "giving up", akin to a form of resignation or abdication. For example, "I guess I'll just accept that my life is miserable." For others, acceptance is a outcome that is begrudgingly received. For example, when someone accepts, or agrees to, the terms of a negotiation that involves giving up some of their demands. These are not the kinds of acceptance we talk about in ACT.
From an ACT perspective, acceptance is an intentional and willful choice to create openness to the parts of our experience that are uncomfortable or painful. This form of acceptance is characterized by compassion, curiosity, and embrace. But why in the world would someone want to do this?? If someone were experiencing sadness, anxiety, ruminations, trauma, or any other number of painful experiences that led them to seek therapy, isn't the whole point to feel better? Why would I want to accept the pain? Doesn't acceptance just mean that I am going to feel this pain even more? That I'm going to wallow in it? Suffer in it?
I'm going to answer this question with a metaphor. For a moment, consider the things in your life that cause you the greatest distress. Perhaps there's depression, anxiety, relationship distress, work pressure, or financial concerns. Now, I'd like you to capture the essence of this pain in the physical form of a monster. Maybe this is a big, scary looking monster with huge claws and razor sharp teeth. Something really terrifying that creates a lot of fear as you look at it. Now, imagine you were walking down the street, minding your own business, and you were to see this monster coming towards you. You'd likely feel a wave of fear coming over you. This fear would likely compel you to run away as fast as you could. And you'd likely feel better having run away from the monster. "Phew! That was a close one!" But then you turn around and you see the monster coming towards you again. The fear returns and the need to escape compels you to run yet again. Again and again, each time the monster approaches, the fear increases and the need to escape returns. What an exhausting proposition this would be! You'd constantly need to keep an eye out for this monster, perpetually ready to run away.
But let's try something else here instead. What if, instead of running away from the monster, you sat down at a table, directly across from this monster. A mere inches away. Whoosh! What a horrible experience that would be! You might be absolutely terrified! Certain that any moment this horrifying monster would leap across the table and eat you in one bite! You might even have full-blown panic symptoms, like, racing heart, hyperventilation, sweating, shaking, and a pit in your stomach. Just an awful experience. But what happens after five minutes of sitting with this monster? Maybe a tiny bit more comfortable? What about after an hour? Or twenty-four hours? Or a week? or Month? At a certain point, the fear of the monster stops becoming a thing. You might even develop a relationship with this monster. You might ask him his name, where he's from, or what his hobbies are.
What's necessary to get to this point? You guessed it, acceptance! But I'm going to use a synonym for acceptance to describe this process. Instead of "acceptance", I'm going to use the word "willingness". In order to obtain a different outcome from my interactions with the monster, you'd need to create a "willingness" to open up to your discomfort. Creating a space within yourself to be in touch with what scares you but to still create a willingness and openness to allow for it to be there. This is not an act of avoidance, distraction, or control. Rather, it is a compassionate, open, and curious response to your experience of pain.
But, why, you might ask, would you want to create this openness or willingness for this discomfort? Isn't it better to try to eradicate this monster? Or figure out a way to keep it locked up or blocked from accessing you? Yes! It would be! But, is that something you can do? As I discussed here, trying to fix or control a problem is a wonderful plan of action if the problem is something you can control. I am not advocating the practice of acceptance or willingness in response to all forms of pain, just those that you cannot effectively control. For example, imagine you were to get a pebble in your shoe while you were walking, and now, every time you take a step you have pain in your foot. Would you accept that experience of pain? Could you create willingness to allow for that pain to be there? I suppose you could, but wouldn't you just rather take the pebble out of your shoe? The problem is, for many of our internal experiences of pain, we can't remove the source of the pain. In these cases, creating a compassionate acceptance of this pain can allow for greater flexibility in responding to it.
So, is acceptance the end goal here? What exactly does acceptance accomplish? We use acceptance as the tool to increase our psychological flexibility, which, in turn, allows us to make choices that move us towards our values, towards what matters most to us. As I discussed here, the consequence of getting hooked into our internal experiences of pain often pulls us away from living our lives by the values that are most important to us. So, I'm not advocating the acceptance of pain for acceptance's sake. I'm promoting the acceptance of pain in the service of connecting to your values. When we master the skill of acceptance, or willingness, the presence of pain or distress does not have to dominate our experiences. We can create space to allow for this distress, step out of the struggle against it, and continue to make choices that move us towards what matters. To unhook from the pain, we must allow ourselves to open up to its presence.
In the next blog post, I'm going to focus on the role of cognitive defusion as an unhooking tool.