A wide variety of techniques are available for use in practicing the process of acceptance. Harris (2009) presents a substantial meditation-based exercise called Acceptance of Emotions which is comprised of 8 techniques that are strung together. These techniques incorporate and build on other elements of ACT such as ‘Contacting the present moment’ and ‘Defusion’. Harris (2005) provides a model script that can be read aloud to the client as you guide them through the exercise.
When first introducing these techniques it makes more sense to present them in the given order but we regularly loop back and remind the client to practice the previous techniques. After we have guided the client through the 8 steps it is helpful to ‘debrief’ or ‘unpack’ by exploring how the client experienced the exercise. You can provide some explanation of the techniques at this stage.
These 8 techniques are described here with some adaptations to the text provided by Harris (2009).
Observe – This involves bringing attention to the body, breath, sensations in the body, and focusing in on a single sensation that is the most intense. This sensation is observed closely with curiosity. The practitioner encourages the client to notice various characteristics of the feeling. Simply observing or noticing a feeling with curiosity often leads to acceptance. For a script to lead the client through this technique. When reminding the client of this technique at a later stage, for example, when you want to facilitate acceptance of a particular emotion that has arisen, you could say “Notice that feeling. Notice where it is. Notice where it is most intense”.
Breathe – “As you are observing this feeling, breathe into it – Imagine your breath flowing into and around this feeling … breathing into and around it …”. Many people – but not all – find that breathing into a feeling enables them to make room for it. Slow diaphragmatic breathing is particularly useful for many people. When reminding the client of this technique at a later stage you could say “Notice that feeling and gently breathe into it”.
Expand – “As you breathe into the feeling, its as if in some magical way, all this space opens up inside you … You open up around the feeling … Make space for it … Expand around it … “. When reminding the client of this technique at a later stage you could say “Notice that feeling and see if you can just open up around it a little – give it some space”.
Allow – “See if you can just allow that feeling to be there. You don’t have to like it or want it … Just allow it … Just let it be … Observe it, breathe into it, open up around it”. Pause for 10 seconds. “You might feel a strong urge to push the feeling away. If so just acknowledge that urge is there without acting on it, and continue observing the sensation. Don’t try to get rid of it. Just let it sit there in the space around it”. When reminding the client of this technique at a later stage you could say “I know you don’t like this feeing, but see if you can just let it sit there for a moment. You don’t have to like it … but just allow it to be there”.
Objectify – “Imagine that this feeling is an object that you can see. As an object, what shape does it have, what colour? Is it solid, liquid or made of gas?” Pause for 5 seconds. “Is it moving or still? Transparent or opaque? If you could touch the surface what would it feel like? Is it rough or smooth? Wet or dry?” Pause for 10 seconds. “Observe this object curiously, give it some space, and notice its characteristics Notice that you are bigger than this object. No matter how big it gets it can never get bigger than you”. When we turn a feeling into an object it helps us to experience the feeling as smaller than we are, demonstrating that we have plenty of room for it [See Note H6i]. As a quick version of this technique when you want to revise it you could say “If this feeling was an object, what would it look like?” Another term for objectify is physicalise.
Normalise – “This feeling tells you some valuable information. It tells you that you’re a normal human being with a heart”. Pause 5 seconds. “It tells you that you care … that there are things that matter to you … And this is what human beings feel when there is a gap between what we want and what we’ve got”. The key is to communicate that it is normal and natural to have painful feelings.
Self compassion – “Take one of your hands and place it on this part of your body. Imagine that this is a healing hand, a hand of a parent or a nurse … and feel the warmth flowing from your hand into your body, not to get rid of the feeling, but just to soften it and loosen up around it”. Pause 5 seconds. “Hold the feeling gently like a frightened puppy or a fragile seedling”. Pause for 10 seconds. “Letting your hand fall once again just breathe into the feeling and expand around it”. When you lay a hand on a painful feeling, it often promotes acceptance very powerfully. A brief way of facilitating this technique might be: “Just place a hand where you feel this most intensely – and see if you can open up around it… Hold it gently”.
Expand awareness – "Life can be like a jungle or being out in the bush. All your memories, thoughts and feelings are like trees, birds and animals in the bush. For the last few minutes we were honing in on one feeling, like using a camera to zoom in on one animal. But this animal is just part of a much larger landscape or ecosystem. So now you are going to put down the camera and look at the whole view, the whole landscape. Bring your awareness back to your body and notice that you’re in control of your arms and legs, regardless of what you are feeling. Move them around a little to check that out. Stretch out your body and notice the feeling in the whole of your body. Open your eyes and look around. Notice what you can see and hear. Notice that there is not just a feeling there, but a feeling inside a body, inside a room, inside a much larger world outside”. When reminding the client of this technique at a later stage you could say “Notice the feeling, and also notice your breathing. …Now extend your awareness to the rest of your body … and the room around you. Notice that there is a lot going on”.
It is possible that during this exercise, the feeling or sensation in the body may change or even go away. If the client reports this it is important to clarify that: (i) this is a bonus, but not the goal, and (ii) it won’t always happen so don’t expect it.
The text provided here is very close to that offered by Harris (2005; p137-140) except for the first and last technique. The first - Observe – has been summarised down to its meaning and the last - Expand awareness - has been modified to suit an Australian cultural context.
Note 6i Some other types of meditation or therapy might encourage clients to imagine the object dissolving or shrinking in some way. ACT does NOT do this because this endorses an agenda of control. We do not need to shrink or remove the object, we just make more room for it.