If you are a Harry Potter fan (like me), you probably remember the scene in the first movie where Harry, Ron, and Hermione go down the trapdoor to find the Sorcerer’s Stone. You may also remember one of their first obstacles: Devil’s Snare. Devil’s Snare is a vicious plant similar to quicksand that traps all three of them and leaves them struggling to get out. As they struggle, Hermione realizes the key to escaping: “Just relax.” As soon as she relaxes and stops the struggle, the plant releases her and she is free to go on with her journey.
In a similar way, we all have things that entangle us from time to time that we struggle against. Whether we are struggling against a mental health issue like anxiety or depression or against another unwanted life situation, getting caught in the struggle can interfere with our ability to continue on our journey. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), acceptance means allowing yourself to experience unwanted thoughts and feelings in order to take back control and continue doing the things you value.
Imagine you are in a pool with an inflatable beach ball. Your task is to keep the ball fully submerged in the water at all times. Because the beach ball floats, this is a real struggle for you. You notice friends and family playing around the pool and wish you could join in, but you are stuck trying to submerge the beach ball. If you could just accept that the beach ball is going to continue to float, you would be able to join in with your family and friends, but first you have to drop the struggle.
It may be easy to see the path toward acceptance in these metaphorical scenarios, but what does acceptance look like when you’re dealing with real problems? In depression, the struggle may look like waiting until all your symptoms are gone before re-engaging with life. In contrast, acceptance may look like going out to dinner with friends even when you are feeling sad. In anxiety, the struggle may look like being paralyzed in decision-making because you haven’t though through every single possibility. Acceptance may look like choosing to make a decision about something you care about even with outstanding questions and unknowns.
A common misconception is that acceptance means approving of the way things are. If you accept your depression or anxiety, it must mean you’re ok with it and that you don’t want to get rid of it. In reality, acceptance is giving yourself permission to get unstuck. It’s giving yourself the freedom to be imperfect and struggle while moving toward things you love and value in life. When we refuse to accept unwanted emotions or thoughts, we are unable to move on from them and we may miss out on the things we really care about in life. Acceptance says “I will allow these uncomfortable emotions to visit, but I will not allow them to keep me from my life.”
If you are struggling with acceptance or feel stuck in the struggle with unwanted thoughts or feelings, therapy can be a great place to start. Reach out to a Summit therapist and start taking steps on the path of acceptance.