Acceptance: Definition, Theory, & Tips to Be More Accepting
By Sarah Sperber
What is acceptance? Read on to learn what acceptance is, theories about acceptance, benefits of acceptance, and tips for being more accepting.
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What is Acceptance? A Definition
We all have a general sense of what it means to “accept” something: “to endure without protest or reaction” (Merriam-Webster, 2021). But what does acceptance mean in the context of psychology, and why is it such a popular topic in the wellness world? To answer these questions, our definition can be a little more specific. The concept that we are discussing in this article is “taking a stance of non-judgmental awareness and actively embracing the experience of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they occur” (Hayes et al., 2004). Read on to explore why we use this definition and what exactly it means.
What Is the Alternative to Acceptance?
There are many aspects of life that we could simply “accept” - financial circumstances, unhealthy relationships, unfulfilling jobs, etc. However, in psychology, acceptance generally refers more specifically to our present-moment experience of thoughts and feelings. This is an important distinction that we will discuss further below, as one can be an accepting person while still taking action to change their life circumstances.
One of the key ideas underlying acceptance in psychology is that difficult emotions are an inescapable part of life: at different times we will find ourselves sad, angry, disappointed, bored, frustrated, grieving, heartbroken - the list goes on. No one, even the most even-keeled individual, is free of these emotions. When these emotions inevitably do arise, there are two ways that we can react: resistance or acceptance. For many of us, resistance is our default reaction. After all, these emotions are not necessarily “pleasant” to experience, and thus we consciously or, more often, unconsciously, try to avoid or resist them. For example, we might watch TV, scroll through social media, eat, drink, or sleep to distract ourselves from these unpleasant feelings.
What Is Acceptance in Psychology?
Psychologists have found that trying to resist or avoid certain difficult experiences can cause further psychological harm (Hayes et al., 2006). Sleeplessness is a good example of this phenomenon - have you ever been lying in bed, unable to fall asleep, getting increasingly agitated about your inability to fall asleep? The irony, of course, is that resisting sleeplessness is an active process that further prevents sleep.
The alternative to resisting our experience is acceptance: to acknowledge the difficult feelings and accompanying thoughts and sit with them instead of trying to run away from them. In the sleeplessness example, to practice acceptance, you might instead acknowledge that you are feeling restless, worried, or anxious - and allow yourself to feel that way. Accept that you are not falling asleep, and simply observe your experience. Letting go mentally can calm the system and, in turn, allow you to fall asleep. This is just one example of how acceptance might shift your daily life.
What is Radical Acceptance?
Radical acceptance encapsulates this idea of a complete embrace of one’s experience, including thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It has been widely popularized as a skill taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a form of psychotherapy that is primarily aimed at helping people manage strong and difficult emotions (Dimeff & Linehan, 2001). Eminent psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach also dives into the idea of radical acceptance in her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha (2004). The title and message of this book highlight the influence that some Eastern philosophical traditions such as Buddhism have had on our current Western conceptualization of acceptance.
Video: Radical Acceptance Revisited - Tara Brach
See below for one of Brach’s talks on the power of radical acceptance.
What is Self-Acceptance?
Tara Brach emphasizes the importance of one’s relationship with oneself, and how fully accepting oneself is required to live life at peace. She writes, “believing that something is wrong with us is a deep and tenacious suffering” (2004). Your experience of yourself consists largely of your emotions, thoughts, and actions, and so learning to accept these (even when they seem difficult or undesirable) is a necessary step towards full self-acceptance.
In working towards self-acceptance, it can be helpful to reflect on your habitual attitude towards yourself. Do you ever speak harshly to yourself about a perceived mistake you made or an embarrassing thing you said? Are you ever feeling overwhelmed with emotion, and on top of everything, frustrated with yourself for feeling this way? How might you be able to take a more understanding and gentle attitude towards yourself?
What Is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?
The psychological definition of acceptance presented at the beginning of this article comes from the psychologist who designed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in the early 1980s, Steven Hayes. This type of therapy is framed around the idea of acceptance coupled with a commitment to action that improves one’s life (Kashdan & Ciarrochi, 2013). ACT has been successfully used for a broad range of psychological issues, such as stress, anxiety, and depression (Hayes et al., 2004).
At first glance, the two concepts in acceptance and commitment therapy might seem at odds. If you “accept” your current state, why would you work to improve your life? Eminent psychologist and one of the founders of the humanistic psychology movement Carl Rogers encapsulated this tension when he wrote, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change” (1995). Here Rogers highlights the power of acceptance as a necessary foundation for personal growth - it is difficult to enact positive growth from a place of self-rejection.
What Does It Mean to Be an Accepting Person?
It is important to note that acceptance is not the same as resignation, and being an accepting person does not mean being a “doormat” or a “pushover.” For example, acceptance does not mean that we have to be happy about inequities that affect ourselves or others. If you find yourself feeling angry about societal issues, for example, acceptance means that you acknowledge and accept your anger. Then from a place of awareness, you can take action.
Mindfulness: The Combination of Awareness and Acceptance
Acceptance is closely linked with the concept of mindfulness. In order to accept one’s circumstances, feelings, and thoughts, one must be fully aware of them. We are often on auto-pilot, living life while not being fully aware of our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Mindfulness allows us to pause, take a step back, and notice our experience. Mindfulness is often described as “non-judgmental awareness,” pointing to the two key ideas inherent in the concept. “Awareness” refers to the act of paying attention to our experience, while “non-judgmental” encapsulates the idea of acceptance that we are discussing. If you accept your thoughts and feelings, you are not judging them or yourself for having them.
Before trying it out, it can be hard to grasp how simply being aware and accepting of negative feelings helps us. Philosopher Alan Watts, most well-known as a proponent of Eastern philosophy in the West, explains this phenomenon in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (1951).
It seems that if I am afraid, then I am “stuck” with fear. But in fact I am chained to the fear only so long as I am trying to get away from it. On the other hand, when I do not try to get away I discover that there is nothing “stuck” or fixed about the reality of the moment. When I am aware of this feeling without naming it, without calling it “fear,” “bad,” “negative,” etc., it changes instantly into something else, and life moves freely ahead.”
5 Ways to Be More Accepting of Yourself
1. Cultivate acceptance by noticing your resistance.
How do you tend to resist your experience? Do you snack to stave off boredom, or binge TV when you are sad? Most of the ways we resist our experiences are unconscious - we do not necessarily put together the pieces and understand why we do certain things at certain times. In this way, resistance has become habitual. The first step towards changing any habit is simply becoming aware of its existence.
2. Cultivate acceptance by questioning your patterns.
Once you have started to notice when and how you tend to resist your experience, you might be able to dig a little deeper to consider why these patterns might exist. When you were sad or angry as a child, how did the adults in your life react? Did they allow you to work through these emotions, or did they (perhaps with the best intentions) tell you to put on a brave face or stop throwing a tantrum? Do you think these experiences might have influenced the way you process emotions today? It might be helpful to write out some of these reflections to remind yourself of your habitual patterns. It can also be a good opportunity for self-acceptance in that you can see that formative experiences, outside of your control, may have shaped your current patterns. The good news is that any pattern is open to change, as long as you are aware of it.
3. Cultivate acceptance by being mindful.
So how can we even become aware of our habitual patterns? As we saw above, mindfulness involves both awareness and acceptance of our experience. A traditional method of practicing mindfulness is through meditation, which involves dedicating a period of time to simply observing experience nonjudgmentally. However, you can bring mindful moments into your everyday life even without meditating.
To give an example of some of these techniques in practice, I'll share an example of how I try to work mindfulness and acceptance into my own life. Sometimes I find myself, entirely on auto-pilot, opening up different apps on my phone - scrolling through one social media site, then another, then maybe opening up the first one again, in a loop until I realize it's been 30 minutes (or more). When I find myself in this cycle, I can pause, take a step back, and reflect - what am I feeling right now? Am I trying to distract myself from or avoid something? Perhaps I am procrastinating from a task that I expect is going to be difficult, or I feel bored. What would happen if, instead of avoiding these current or expected experiences, I fully recognized and embraced them as part of life?
4. Cultivate acceptance by thinking of your inner child.
We are our own harshest critics. Accepting ourselves can be difficult because we are most likely so used to judging ourselves for thinking, feeling, and acting certain ways. It is rare that you would judge a loved one as harshly as you judge yourself - you are likely used to being more accepting of others than of yourself. While mindfulness allows us to step back and take a more objective view of ourselves, it may take a lot of practice to reach this stage. One helpful technique in the meantime is to think about yourself as a child. This can help remind us of our most innocent and vulnerable selves, which may make it easier to be gentle and understanding when our experience is difficult.
5. Cultivate acceptance through practice.
Acceptance is just like any other skill: it takes practice. People who are accepting of themselves and others have made acceptance a default mental habit by continuously choosing a more accepting mindset over and over again. After a while, these repeated mental choices become habitual and natural and do not require as much effort. Next time you find yourself struggling with difficult emotions, try to use this as an opportunity to practice acceptance. “Okay, I’m feeling frustrated right now. Frustration is a perfectly common and normal emotion, and it’s okay for me to feel this way.” See how this thought pattern might shift the way you are feeling.
How to Be More Accepting of Others
The above methods can also be used to become more accepting of others. Bringing awareness, reflection, and patience to your interactions with others will help you recognize and accept their difficult patterns, just as you do for yourself. A key note here is that being more accepting of others becomes easier as we become more accepting of ourselves. Self-acceptance can bring us a sense of peace and confidence, which in turn improves our interactions and relationships with others.
More Articles That Can Help You Cultivate Acceptance
Here are a few more articles that may help you change your thought patterns and increase acceptance.
Acceptance is not the same as resignation. In psychology, acceptance refers to acknowledging and allowing present experience - not necessarily our life situation. Through awareness and practice, you have the ability to increase acceptance in your own life and enjoy the benefits that it may bring.