Skill #31: The Choice: Act on and Accept Emotions

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Welcome to the last chapter in the How to Process Your Emotions course, The Choice: Act on and Accept Emotions! I can’t believe it’s over! By this point you’ve learned over 30 skills that you can use to process through your emotions. But the goal of this course isn’t just to feel better, it’s also to get better at feeling. To get good at having emotions, working through them and then making choices that lead to a rich and fulfilling life. Today we are going to talk about the choices we have on how to respond to your emotions.

When we take a step back and look at the process of resolving emotions, we start with identifying the emotion, then we move into slowing it down and accepting the emotion and exploring it. And all of these steps are important, but the whole purpose of emotional regulation is to help us take helpful action. Action often helps us free up that stored movement inside of us. 

Look at the word emotion. E-motion. The mote comes from Latin, and it means “to move.” It’s the same root that’s in words like motivation and motor. It’s something that inspires movement. Our emotions, even the ones that can be considered negative or uncomfortable, as I prefer, can be powerful motivating forces to help us move and change. 

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish doctor who spent years imprisoned in a concentration camp. His family was killed, but he survived the horror of it. 

And he said, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

When I read this, I don’t think he was saying you can just choose to be happy all the time. Dr. Frankl experienced fear, anguish, sadness, discouragement. 

What I think he means by this is that you can choose how you’re going to respond to a situation; you can choose how you’re going to think about a situation; you can choose how you’re going to act in a situation. And learning the skills to process emotions can give us the ability to do that. 

My hope is that through this course you’ve learned how to honor your emotions, how to honor your deepest sense of what is right. I hope that you’ve learned that the painful and uncomfortable emotions are sometimes messages to us motivating us to take action or to fix something, and other times emotions can get twisted or distorted and we just need to breathe through them and let them pass. 

Intentional Choices

Working through emotions frees you to make intentional instead of reactive choices. When your emotions aren’t jerking you around, you can choose to live a life that you value. 

In my opinion, peace comes from closing the gaps between our deepest sense of what is right and our actions. Taking actions, even small action, often frees us from many of our emotions. To do that we need to clarify what our emotion is saying. We need to let go of justification or rationalization, and we need to take intentional, not reactive, action to move in the direction we value. 

With every emotion comes the choice whether to act to change something, to accept things as they are, or to avoid our emotions or justify our actions. 

When we blame our circumstances or other people for how we act, we’re being reactive. If we allow our emotions to dictate our choices, we’re being reactive. When we let drives and desires and impulses and bad habits take over, we usually begin to stray from our values. We get further and further from being the kind of person that we want to be and from living the life that we want to live. 

The ability to acknowledge, accept, and regulate emotions gives us the power to have integrity in our life. Initially this takes a lot of effort and work to bring our life into line with our values, but over time the intentional and chosen actions become habitual. They take less energy and less effort to maintain. 

And eventually these become a natural response that comes more easily to us. We still choose our action, but that action seems to flow from us. 

Actively Accept Emotions

There are also certain situations where the best action is active acceptance. Again, this is not passively giving in to hopelessness or anger or despair of a situation, but it’s willingly accepting that the best course is non-action. 

So here’s a few situations where we’re better off not taking action: when we’re obsessing over the past, when we’re trying to change other people, trying to control the future or control anything outside of our locus of control. 

I’ve heard the Serenity Prayer also said “Grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s an easy distraction to waste energy trying to change other people and ignoring change in ourselves. 

Small Steps

I often ask myself the question, “Is there something I can do about it, even a small change?” And then when I take that step, I can feel empowered. Remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. It’s one step at a time. Never allow yourself to believe that because you can’t do it all it’s not worth doing anything. 

Now, sometimes the solution or the action doesn’t present itself right away or I don’t have the ability to take action right away. And in this case, it’s difficult, but it’s important to try to stay open. Don’t just shut down and say, “Well, this will never happen.” Try sticking with a more open stance, like, “Not yet, or perhaps in the future I’ll be able to make this better.” 

Don’t expect yourself to be able to change everything at once. An all-or-nothing approach to change usually sets people up for failure. In my opinion, usually change is a process of increasing the length of recovery and decreasing the frequency and severity of relapse. So you’re having longer and longer times where you’re living the way you want to live and shorter and shorter times where you’re being reactive.

Values Compass

This all comes down to using your values as your compass when you’re at the point of choice, the point where you need to decide, “Should I take action? Should I let things go that are outside of my control?” 

To answer these questions, acceptance and commitment therapy asks the question: What do you value? What do you want your life to look like? What are the character traits that you want to embody? Does giving a lot of energy and attention to this problem help you live a more rich and fulfilling life? If not, then shift your energy and your attention back to what’s most important to you. 

And that’s what it all boils down to. That’s the choice: do I take action? Do I accept the things I cannot change? And these are the questions that can help you live a life of integrity and peace. 

As you get good at processing emotions, what will your life look like? What will change? What will you improve on?

Thank you so much for taking this journey with me. I’d love to hear what you think about this course. Thanks again for watching, and take care. 

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