The idea of acceptance is complicated and explaining it to clients is challenging. There are different ways to approach it depending on the context. Harris (2009) offers some suggestions for introducing acceptance that are appropriate for use depending on the issues you have been working on at the time, or the things that have just been learned recently:
When control is not working – If the client has recently come to the conclusion that trying to control their thoughts and feelings is not working and is ready to hear about a different strategy you could segue into acceptance like this “Okay, so if trying to control how you feel doesn’t work too well, then what is the alternative” or “You’ve told me that when you try to stop those feelings by distracting yourself or thinking about something else often just makes it worse. What else can you do?” At this point Harris (2009; p135-136) recommends revisiting the “Pushing against the clipboard” metaphor which was initially used when introducing ACT for the very first time see H1. He suggests some text that can be used at points where it is useful to revisit this (see Harris 2009; p136).
After you have been working on defusion – Once a client understands that it is possible to separate herself from her thoughts and watch them come and go, she may still report problems such as feeling that certain thoughts are unbearable or wanting certain thoughts to go away. You could segue into acceptance by saying “Okay so far we’ve been looking at these difficult thoughts, but what about the feelings?” or “Your mind is saying that these thoughts are unbearable, how about we look more closely and see if this is really true?” or “So you can see how its possible to get some distance from these thoughts, but you still have some painful feelings. Where do feelings fit into this?”
From self-as-context – When you have been working on a self-as-context or observing self exercise, and the client is reporting connection with this viewpoint, you can direct their attention back to the thoughts and feelings they have been struggling with and invite them to explore the possibility of a different relationship to them. “So from this perspective, notice that feeling of resentment you have talked about, and that feeling of guilt that you have about wanting to lash out. Just sit quietly and watch these feelings from the observing self. Let’s see if it’s really true that you can’t cope with these feelings”.
From values – Working on values can be confronting for many people because it raises areas of life experience in which we are most vulnerable. Feelings such as guilt and fear of failure can arise. Focusing on these feelings and making room for them facilitates the work of clarifying our values. We could begin to introduce acceptance by saying “As you think about those values, what feelings are showing up for you?”.
When we introduce the idea of acceptance or willingness, many people will repeatedly ask - out loud or in private - why they should be willing to accept negative feelings. Hayes and Smith (2005; p47-48) offer a list of useful answers to questions about why willingness is so important:
- Because when we struggle against painful experiences the struggle makes them all the more painful.
- Because when we close ourselves off from the painful parts of our past, we close ourselves off from the helpful things we’ve learned in the past.
- Because we experience a loss of vitality when we are not willing.