Mastering the Paradox of Acceptance and Change With Anxiety- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

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One day I was feeling super stressed out about work. I was transitioning from just being a therapist to being a business owner and the legal and financial and emotional issues were really stressing me out.  

So, I wasn’t sleeping that well. I got up really early one morning to start working through my problems and I was just feeling more and more anxious.

So, as the sun was rising, I started walking down the road. I thought, if I can only get some exercise, I can make this anxiety go away.

So, I started walking but I started feeling more and more anxious.  Then I thought, “Oh if I can just use some breathing exercises, I can make this anxiety go away.”

So, I tried to start breathing slowly and deeply but now I was feeling more and more anxious almost panicky, and then I started to worry that I wasn’t going to be able to control my anxiety and that was just one more problem to deal with.

So basically, the more I tried to make my stress go away, the more I sent a message to my brain that anxiety was actually dangerous, and that made my brain more anxious.

Getting Out Of The Struggle With Anxiety

Now I’m a therapist, I know lots of skills and tricks to decrease anxiety but at that moment nothing I was trying was working.

Why? Because I had forgotten that underlying your ability to change and heal and grow and work through emotions, the foundation of that ability is willingness, being willing to accept how you feel in that moment before you try to change anything.

Because I wasn’t accepting my feelings. Because I was trying to force them to go away, I was locking myself into a struggle with my anxiety instead of a struggle for my values.

So, today we’re going to talk about how to know when to accept what you’re feeling and when to try to change how you’re feeling.

And I’ll tell you how I got myself out of the struggle with anxiety and back to calm through a paradoxical approach.

Reconciling The Idea Of Acceptance With Change

Okay, so those of you who have watched a lot of my videos have probably seen that I’ve made a lot of content about acceptance and about how being willing to feel your emotions can be really helpful.

But if you’ve watched a lot of my videos, you also know that I make a ton of videos about growth and hope and change and decreasing anxiety. So, it’s fair that I often get asked how I reconcile this idea of acceptance with change.

So for example, I got this question from a student.

“I’m a bit confused about how doing exercises to regulate the nervous system fits in with the previous section where we were encouraged to be willing to feel emotions. These exercises sort of feel like an attempt to get rid of negative emotions.”

Now this is a great question and I think it’s a really important question to carefully consider.

I think it’s really easy to get mixed up when it comes to figuring out how to manage emotions because it does seem like such a paradox.

In order to resolve emotions, you have to be willing to accept that they may not resolve.

What I’m saying is that in order to change how you feel you need to stop trying to change how you feel.  

I can see how this is confusing and I’m going to do my best to clear it up.  

What Acceptance Is Not

So, first, let’s start with what acceptance is not. So first when I use the word acceptance, I’m not talking about a permanent thing.

Acceptance is not a future prediction. It’s not saying, “Oh I guess I just have to accept that I’m going to be depressed for the rest of my life. It’s not, okay I just have to feel this anxiety forever and suffer through it.“

Acceptance is just about the present moment. It’s allowing yourself to be where you’re at. It’s allowing your sensations and thoughts and emotions to be there because they are there.  

Second, acceptance is not a label like, “Oh, I’m just an anxious person.”  

What Acceptance Is

Acceptance is a present-moment experience. It’s saying right now, “I’m am feeling anxiety.”  

And it’s also acknowledging that emotions come and go.

Acceptance is not liking or wanting to feel this way.  

Acceptance is not agreeing with your thoughts or feelings.

It’s just saying, “These are here.”

You can accept someone else’s point of view without having to agree with it.

You can accept that someone else has an opinion that is different than yours without agreeing with them.

I accept that there are people who think the Earth is flat and the moon landing was fake. These people exist. Their opinions exist.

I don’t agree with them but they do exist.  

Emotional acceptance is probably more specific, more narrow than how the term acceptance is generally used.

Acceptance is like a warrior who’s been fighting a battle against a dragon. Maybe he’s been fighting this dragon for a very long time.

Acceptance is the courageous act of putting down your sword and walking away from the fight. You’re not losing, you’re choosing to walk away.

I think there are a couple of parts to this. The first is that acceptance is pragmatic. It’s functional when struggling against emotions isn’t functional in the long run.

So, ask yourself, “Is struggling against my emotions helping me? Is it working in the long run?”

If struggling against your emotions isn’t working, then let’s just try willingness as an experiment.  

Get Better At Feeling

The big picture goal is not just to change how you feel but actually to get better at feeling so that we get so good at feeling emotions that they no longer control us that they don’t make our decisions for us that we get to choose how to live our lives instead of giving in or avoiding loud emotions.

When we make the choice to accept emotions, we free ourselves up to stop struggling against them and then make conscious intentional choices about our values.  

When we can’t choose how we feel, we can choose what actions to take.

We can try stuff. We can experiment with growth and change and see what is helpful and what isn’t.

But if instead we’re locked up, we say like, “I can’t handle feeling anxiety. I can’t go to school. I can’t face my boss if it makes me scared or uncomfortable.”  

Then all of a sudden emotions have all the power to make decisions in our life.

What To Do When Stuck In The Struggle Against Anxiety

So, back to my story when I was out on the road that early morning, I realized that I was stuck in the struggle against anxiety.

I also realized it wasn’t working. I had to just take a moment and notice what I was doing. Then I was able to say, “Silly Emma, you know what to do now.”

So, I said, “Anxiety, bring it on. Do your worst. I can handle it. I can feel my feelings. I can feel anxious about running a YouTube channel and a business because that is the cost of doing good in the world.”  

I said, “Bring it on anxiety.”  And I took a moment and I just let myself feel and I cried a little and then within minutes the anxiety was gone.

It had set its peace. I had listened to it and it no longer needed to shout at me.

Okay now don’t get me wrong. This is not the outcome I was demanding.  Sometimes feelings hang around for a lot longer.

If you want to practice acceptance, you can’t just fake it and hope that your acceptance will help you avoid your feelings.

But much of the time, true acceptance does help resolve emotions.

Experience An Emotion To Release And Let It Go

It’s a weird paradox. So, when I teach people to accept emotions, to get willing to feel; I say this not because I think all emotions are truthful or helpful or that we should stay immersed in all emotions is that because the foundation of growth and emotional flexibility is to drop the struggle with emotions first.

As long as you are devoting all your energy to fighting your emotions, you have no energy to focus on what you do want to be creating with your life and because emotions can’t be forced into anything, you’re essentially giving them control of your life.

So that’s the first reason why we start with acceptance because the struggle against emotions gets in the way of living the life you value. But force is not the same as the invitation.

So just because we can’t force emotions to change, doesn’t mean we can’t invite them to change. When we open our hearts to fully experience an emotion, we make it more likely that it can release and let go.

The Analogy Of A Seed

I often use the analogy of a seed. Within a seed of corn is the potential to change into a corn plant, to swell and create roots and expand and create leaves and a tall stock and then ears of corn with hundreds or thousands of kernels.

But if you try to force that seed to sprout right now, tearing it apart to make it change, you’ll only destroy your kernel and your chances for growth.

So with a seed, we have to start right where we are. We have to start with acceptance of this present-moment experience.

This is a tiny seed that has the potential for change. So let’s take that first step toward change.

Let’s get this seed moist. Let’s get it wet. Then the next step is to get it into the soil and then allow it to sprout and drop roots and grow shoots.

So does accepting that the seed is in the seed stage mean that I can’t also take action toward change?

No, it’s just that acceptance of being where you are has to come first when it comes to moving forward.

Acceptance Lays The Foundation Of Change

So, you just need to start where you’re at.  I can think of a client who is constantly struggling against his emotions, his feelings of anxiety and panic and the more he felt the more scared he got,  the more he tried to stuff them down.  

He’d try not to cry. Try not to break down as he called it and because he spent so much time trying not to feel upset, he stopped doing the things he cared about. He stopped working in his garden. He stopped going to church. He stopped getting out of bed.

And then one day about a year into therapy, he switched to trying acceptance. The moment he said, “Bring it on emotions.  Bring it on anxiety. These feelings can’t hurt me.”

Then he would start going out into his garden and sometimes he’d feel scared or sad or angry and he’d say, “It’s okay to feel this but I’m gonna keep working. “

And very gradually he started to feel better.

But in the meantime, he was also living his values. He was working in his garden, something he loved.

And so acceptance has to lay the foundation of change.

They aren’t contradictory. It’s like American football, each play starts at the line of scrimmage.

Acceptance means starting where you are and then during the play the teams make attempts to move the ball towards their goal.  

If you spent the whole game arguing about where the ball should start, you’d never get to play the game.

Acceptance doesn’t mean that you always win but it means that you get to play

Stop Wasting Time Struggling Against Emotions

And so in your journey towards growth, stop wasting your time and energy struggling against emotions.  

I find myself doing this sometimes, trying to use my skills to avoid my feelings and it always leaves me trapped.  

If you’re doing this, drop the struggle. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling.

Make space for your thoughts and sensations and that allows you to make the next play, to keep working toward growth.

Then when you’re working to decrease anxiety by changing your thoughts or calming your body or facing your fears, you keep working on those skills until you find yourself perhaps getting sidetracked and sneakily falling back into old patterns of fighting anxiety.

Go Back To The Default Setting

And at that moment go back to your default setting. Go back to stage one. Go back to the seed and say to your emotions, “Bring it on. I can feel and it’s okay.”

So, when it comes to balancing acceptance versus change, when things aren’t working when I find myself feeling stuck or overwhelmed, I have to go back to that default setting of emotional acceptance. That’s the foundation of growth.

I say to myself, “This is what I’m feeling right now. I’m allowed to feel this. This feeling is just a feeling. It won’t hurt me.”

And when I’ve allowed that to be there for a while, I can take a look at my values and choose what’s the next helpful action to take.  

I hope this is helpful. Very grateful to all of you who are taking the time to improve yourselves and learn and grow and make the world a better place.

When things get stressful do you find yourself coping in unhealthy ways like overeating, venting, or just avoiding things altogether?

These strategies may work in the short term but eventually, they’ll end up causing more problems than they solve.

Imagine what it’d be like if you had the skills to work through tough emotions without losing it?

The course How to Process Your Emotions, you’ll learn how to work through emotions without engaging in the struggle with them. You’ll learn how to practice acceptance and honor your emotions, without letting them control your life. 

By the end of the course, you’ll show stress, anxiety, and depression that don’t run your life because you’ll have the skills to manage emotions in healthy ways.  

If you want to learn more just click the link below

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