awareness – acceptance – action

I went to a two day conference last week on “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” given by Steven C. Hayes. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked his presentation – not only the information but also how he presented it. Most importantly, he came across as a real person with struggles and vulnerabilities in addition to his vast knowledge, skill and experience. It’s not every day that we feel truly inspired by someone else’s approach to the professional work we do. Well, I’m happy to say that my money was well spent and that Steven Hayes and his many colleagues are (in my opinion) making important contributions to the field of psychotherapy and mental health. On a personal level, the workshop helped me to clarify some of my thinking around issues that I believe are critically important to our field, some of which I speak to below. Thanks Steve!

Life is messy and complex. Anxiety, fear, frustration, jealousy, depression, regret, disappointment and other crappy moods are inescapable – just part of what it means to be alive. When these experiences become too prevalent in our lives, however, they can become debilitating. When our primary relationships and/or our daily functioning are being negatively impacted, we are already past due – we need to take steps toward doing something about it.
But let’s back up for a moment and ask a question:

How do you respond when unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings arise within your experience on a day to day basis?

Human beings are equipped with an intuitive response to unpleasantness: We move away from it. With regard to “negative emotions,” however, the irony is that to “move away” (i.e. avoid, ignore, deny) doesn’t work well at all. In fact, it strengthens and intensifies them in our lives – and causes them to become toxic. In moving away from what we perceive as negative emotions, we fail to attend to them effectively. Keep in mind, your internal life is like a garden; it needs your ongoing attention and care in order for you to grow.

Part of what it means for us to grow and develop in adulthood is to wrap our minds around this counter-intuitive truth: When darker moods and uncomfortable emotional experiences arise within us, our first priority should be to open (rather than close) ourselves and to move toward (rather than away from) those feelings.

Are you serious!!?? Yes. Read on.

the paradox of acceptance 
Once we become aware that we are down in the dumps or feeling funky or not myself today or depressed and anxious, the best current thinking in psychotherapy (in my opinion) emphasizes an acceptance-based approach rather than an attempt to eliminate or stamp out these “negative emotions.” In fact, an acceptance-based paradigm challenges the very dichotomy of “positive emotions” versus “negative emotions,” believing that such a polarization perpetuates unnecessary and unhelpful internal conflicts.

The thinking is this: As we become more skilled at effectively processing our emotional experiences on a moment to moment basis, all internal experience start to take on a very different quality. In other words, all emotionality has the potential to enrich our experience, deepen our understandings and enhance our ability to connect with ourselves and others. To fulfill that potential, we need to do some learning and growing, and maybe even some hard work. While I’m not a huge fan of formulas, I find this one rather useful with regard to understanding, processing and responding to our emotional experiences – moment to moment and day to day:

awareness – acceptance – action
This framework underlies much of the thought and practice that has constituted many traditions of personal growth and spiritual development throughout history. The good news is that you are probably already using it in some form or fashion, as it is a natural process of non-linear (right brain) problem solving that is built into who we are. Our task is to increase our recognition of and appreciation for this framework – and to become more skilled and purposeful in our utilization of it – as we endeavor to live with more depth, balance and vitality.

awareness … is the practice of staying attuned and connected to three things: (1) the ongoing emotionality, as well as the storms of emotion, within you; (2) your own thought patterns and ways of interpreting reality; in other words, your habitual patterns of inner dialogue or self-talk; and (3) the dynamics and realities of the world around you. Another word for this practice is mindfulness.

acceptance … is not separate from awareness; it is the attitude with which we need to practice awareness. Acceptance refers to a spirit of openness and willingness to face life as it is, to open our eyes to what’s really going on in our emotions, our relationships, our lives and in the world. Acceptance does NOT mean that we approve of or support current conditions; it simply means that we are not in denial, nor are we emotionally numb to current realities.

action … is the art of doing what needs to be done. It’s the opposite of procrastination and of wasting time in frivolous activity. In Eastern philosophy there is a concept of asking oneself over and over: “What is my next right action?” In other words, “What do I REALLY need to be focusing on and doing in this moment – and in this phase of my life?” An important part of this framework is that our actions/decisions should not be organized around the principle of immediate gratification, but rather should flow from a purpose greater than ourselves – a vision for who we want to be, how we want to live and what we want to contribute in the world.

Ask yourself:

What do I need to stop avoiding and ignoring in my life?

What am I settling for that really doesn’t serve me?

What do I need to be focusing more of my attention on?

What do I need to be more aware of in my life – for today and in the bigger picture?

Once you’ve identified an aspect of your life (internal or external) that you have been neglecting, take a deep breath and open yourself to the experience. Let it into your heart and own it. I’m not saying you have to like it, but you DO need to accept and embrace it as part of your reality because the paradox of all paradoxes is that acceptance is a pre-condition for change. Only by spending some time in acceptance can we start to see clearly the nuances of the situation, and what ‘right actions’ we need to take in order for us to transform conditions and/or grow in the ways we need to grow. If we refuse to practice acceptance, we stay stuck – plain and simple.

So – make a commitment today to face some of your demons. Once you do, run toward them and wrap your arms around them and tell them you will neglect them no more. While you are embracing them, tell them that they need to shape up and that you are ready to take ownership of your responsibility in that process. In facing our demons, the paradoxical truth is this: We need to kill them with kindness.

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