What Is Acceptance And Why Is It So Important?

mbsr acceptanceAcceptance can be a difficult notion to grasp. If you are suffering or in pain, the idea that you should practice acceptance can seem counterintuitive. So what do we mean by acceptance, and how is it beneficial?

In therapy, when we talk about acceptance, we are referring to acceptance of things such as:

  • external events outside our control
  • spontaneous emotions, thoughts and memories
  • uncertainty
  • pain or physical sensations

In this context, acceptance simply means acknowledging reality as it is right now. When we accept something, we are simply acknowledging that it exists. We don’t judge it as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable; we simple acknowledge it as being present.

Acceptance can be difficult to do, or to even think about attempting, when we are faced with pain and distress; but when it comes to things like emotions, thoughts, the past and external situations beyond our control, the alternatives to acceptance—such as denying, or suppressing and avoiding—only make the things worse.

In his book Full Catastrophe Living, which details his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, Jon Kabat-Zinn provides a good description of acceptance:

Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. If you have a headache, accept that you have a headache. If you are overweight, why not accept it as a description of your body at this time? Sooner or later we have to come to terms with things as they are and accept them, whether it is a diagnosis of cancer or learning of someone’s death.

Often acceptance is only reached after we have gone through very emotion-filled periods of denial and then anger. These stages are a natural progression in the process of coming to terms with what is. They are all part of the healing process.

However, putting aside for the moment the major calamities that usually take a great deal of time to heal from, in the course of our daily lives we often waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact. When we do that, we are basically trying to force situations to be the way we would like them to be, which only makes for more tension.

This actually prevents positive change from occurring. We may be so busy denying and forcing and struggling that we have little energy left for healing and growing, and what little we have may be dissipated by our lack of awareness and intentionality.

Acceptance does not mean that you have to like everything or that you have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon your principles and values. It does not mean that you are satisfied with things as they are or that you are resigned to tolerating things as they “have to be.”

It does not mean that you should stop trying to break free of your own self-destructive habits or to give up on your desire to change and grow, or that you should tolerate injustice, for instance, or avoid getting involved in changing the world around you because it is the way it is and therefore hopeless.

Acceptance as we are speaking of it simply means that you have come around to a willingness to see things as they are. This attitude sets the stage for acting appropriately in your life, no matter what is happening.

You might be familiar with the notion of acceptance from the Serenity Prayer that is often used in Alcoholics Anonymous:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Learning to practice acceptance in the face of distressing external and internal events that are outside of our control, and that we can’t change in the moment in which they’re occurring, can go a long way in helping us deal with these events and preventing them from becoming even more distressing.

In the next post, we’ll look at acceptance from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Guelph Therapist Greg Dorter

I’m a Guelph therapist specializing in helping people overcome depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

For more information about how I can help you learn to practice mindfulness and acceptance, or to make an appointment for counselling or therapy in Guelph, please call me at 226-500-4086 or email greg@guelphtherapist.ca.