If a friend is ever describing their anxiety about an upcoming interview, please don’t say those famous words ‘just accept the anxiety’. Dear me, I’ve tried that route; it doesn’t work. Life just isn’t that simple.
I guess that’s what bugs me about acceptance; it is deceitful. To those in the general public acceptance promotes itself as a valiant superhero, equipped to take away human suffering in one swift blow. This is the reason why, when standing in line at the local cinema, I will often hear people throw about the word ‘acceptance’ as if it is an easy and simple psychological quick fix. Yet when acceptance is viewed in this way it is not a valiant hero, instead it is one of those American Salesman from Western Movies who drive from town-to-town selling miracle cures. Acceptance can deceive people into thinking that it is an easy miracle cure to managing difficult feelings.
If you do happen to say those words ‘just accept the anxiety’ to your friend. Watch closely what their face does. Usually it will contort in such a way as if to say ‘what does that even mean?’ It’s a good question. In that moment most people will acknowledge the futility in trying to instantly cultivate this mysterious feeling of acceptance. I wish it were possible to flick a switch and feel accepting but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Now although it may seem I am not a fan of acceptance, that couldn’t be further from the truth. You would be correct in thinking that I am not a fan of acceptance in the everyday quick fix notion of the word. But I am most certainly a fan of the way acceptance is meant in ACT. I figure it may be of some value to speak to the difference between these two positions.
The first thing you need to know about acceptance is that although it made practical sense to include the word ‘acceptance’ in ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’, most within the ACT community prefer the word ‘willingness’ (WCT just doesn’t have the same ring to it). The reason for this is because acceptance sometimes smells of toleration i.e. we will tolerate the bad feeling until something better comes along. Willingness is not toleration; it is instead the active choice to contact something difficult in the service of our values. If the negative feeling goes away then great, but that is never the aim. Think about it; if we head into willingness in order to make a feeling go away then we are, by definition, unwilling. True acceptance does not mean accepting our feelings on the condition that they will cease to exist. It means accepting our feelings. Period. It means being willing to feel unwanted emotions.
The second and arguably most important thing that you need to know about willingness is that it is not a feeling. Just get your head around that. Feelings are so whimsical. They come and they go and they are really difficult to control. ACT is not about chasing feelings of any kind, including the feeling of acceptance. However, you do not have feel willing in order to act willingly. When we say the words ‘just accept the feeling’ the underlying implication is that it is possible to manufacture a feeling of acceptance. There is no doubt that, at times, we do experience the feeling of acceptance, but it’s really difficult to create it on the spot. In ACT, when we talk about willingness, we are talking about acting in a willing way when it would be easier not to. We are talking about becoming friendly with discomfort. For example, if you are craving chocolate whilst on a diet, then willingness is the action of sitting in the chair, feeling the uncomfortable feeling and not moving towards the fridge. If you are feeling depressed and lying in bed, then willingness is getting up and going to the shops whilst feeling absolutely horrible inside.
We spend so much time running away from difficult feelings. The problem is that when we do we often avoid doing things that are important to us. However, if you are willing to experience negative thoughts and feelings then your options open right out. Willingness encourages people to contact discomfort in the pursuit of valued living, so that instead of ‘I could go to the party, but I can’t because it would make me feel anxious’, now it is ‘I am going to the party and it will make me anxious but I am going anyway’. ‘I’m so nervous about this interview that I am going to mess it up, there’s no point in going’ becomes ‘I’m feeling pretty nervous, but that’s ok, I’ll see you after the interview.’ If you act to avoid discomfort, then think of all the ways in which you constrict your life. When willing, you get to do so much more.