Experiential acceptance, the ability to sit with difficult thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories, as they arise in the lived present moment, is a cornerstone of the latest psychological therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Sometimes, within ACT, experiential acceptance is described as willingness, as in willingness to have difficult thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories, if that’s what it takes to do what matters to you.
Experiential acceptance is an incredibly important concept and there is a steadily growing mountain of evidence that our ability to allow our experiences to be as they are, without trying to fight, control or escape them, is a cornerstone of psychological health (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010). If you can open up to your experiences as they are, then you get to maintain control over your life. You can make the actions you take about your values, about what matters most in your heart of hearts, rather than simply about trying to escape difficult experiences or feel permanently happy.
Yet, the concept itself seems to be a bit tricky and sticky.
Some people particularly struggle with the word ‘acceptance’ and it is no wonder. Many of us have a history of opening up to others and being told, forcefully and harshly to ‘accept it’. Sometimes we may even bully ourselves with commands to ‘accept it’ and ‘just get over it’. Of course, the meaning of the forceful and harsh ‘accept it’ is not experiential acceptance at all (the meaning is more like ‘shut up’).
Others seem to take experiential acceptance as an end unto itself, some kind of ultimate virtue even. Seeing experiential acceptance as the ultimate virtue, they may expect complete experiential acceptance from themselves all the time, even if doing what matters most is simply not at stake. They may lose all sense of their emotional life as a barometer; failing to notice the times when their emotions could actually lead them in the right direction. Sometimes doing what matters means feeling the fear and facing the feared situation anyway. Other times it means feeling the fear and avoiding the feared situation.
So what is experiential acceptance really?
Experiential acceptance does not mean grabbing the tiny, frightened child inside of you and forcefully, bullyingly dragging that frightened child into the big scary situation.
Experiential acceptance means involves embracing the tiny, frightened child inside of you with compassion and love. It means gently and lovingly carrying that child throughout your life.
Experiential acceptance does not mean denying that your emotional life, at times, can be an effective barometer. Nor does it mean that you never act based your emotions, instincts or urges.
Experiential acceptance means that you hold your emotions lightly, doing what matters most. Sometimes this means listening to your emotions. Acceptance means developing a friendly and open relationship with your own emotions, instincts and urges.
Experiential acceptance does not mean that you refrain from taking the steps you could take to lessen suffering, both your own and the suffering of others, in the name of virtuous acceptance.
Experiential acceptance means truly engaging with suffering, both your own and the suffering of others, and responding compassionately as best you can to lessen that suffering.
In a nutshell: experiential acceptance is compassionate.
Apply it in your life: True acceptance or willingness has a compassionate quality. Are you compassionate towards yourself and others?
Kashdan, T.B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical Psychology Review. 30, 865-878.