Acceptance is an area that I find myself doing a lot of work on in 1-1 situations and there are two components I regularly look at which I will cover today. The first piece is understanding, that is understanding where our emotions are coming from and why, this allows us to move out of reactivity and gives us perspective over our natural emotional reaction. The second piece is about sitting with these emotions and being conscious of where you are at and whether that is a useful place for you.
If you’ve read any of Steve Peter’s ‘Chimp Paradox’ work or maybe any evolutionary psychology then you may be familiar with the first aspect. The idea, in its simplest form, is that we, as humans, have evolved with a brain designed to survive in situations that we are now unlikely to find ourselves in. Looking at our brain we have the ‘new’ cortex that gives us our human qualities, this sits above the ‘old’ brain and brainstem. This ‘old’ brain is where our innate drives live and our ‘fight, flight, freeze’ responses. Now whilst this hugely oversimplified description of our brain may be interesting to know, what does it tell us about acceptance? The crux of this is that we are still basic creatures under the ‘humanness’ and this inner chimp often dominates our interactions in life without us realising it. If someone cuts you up in traffic what do you do? Chances are you wave some gestures in their direction with a few choice words. Ask your passenger what you look like in this situation and they’ll help you realise where the chimp idea comes from. Acceptance comes into this as we need to have the knowledge that we, in certain situations will have a natural reaction to behave based on our drives and our fight, flight, freeze responses. If we battle this then we will quickly find ourself in internal strife. These ‘old brain’ mechanisms are the root of our survival as a species, they are very strong and you cannot outwit them with will. Instead you need to understand and accept where these are coming from, why they were once useful and why they perhaps aren’t here.
This understanding piece creates perspective for us. We can view those unhelpful responses through a different lens, separating ourselves from them and moving us out of reactivity. Perspective is at the heart of managing and shaping our thinking.
The next layer builds upon this perspective by asking you to sit with these emotions, naming them, working out why they are there and then whether they are useful for you. In many Eastern practices you hear this piece of acceptance being referred to as courageous. This is because it isn’t easy to sit with emotions, it is much much easier to be the chimp, throw your hands in the air and be angry that the world is against you. Instead what is more helpful is to pause and recognise the emotion, it can be really powerful here to actually name it in the 3rd person, for example ‘Jamie is angry’. This immediately pulls you out of reactivity and gives you perspective. From here you can now ask the question ‘Why?’ It may be that it is just a case of someone aggravating your chimp as we’ve discussed above, however, the chances are that there is something else going on which you can explore. Understanding the ‘why’ behind your emotion gives you the opportunity to find a solution. This sounds simple but requires effort and courage. A great motivator for this is, using your perspective, to ask yourself ‘what is most useful for me here?’ Considering things in this light it is unlikely that the emotional response will come out on top as so many of these are self-defeating.
Consider the example from earlier about being cut up in traffic, if you get angry who does that actually damage? The person that cut you up has driven off, none the wiser, where as you are sat stewing in your car and then have that emotional baggage which you will likely unleash somewhere else, damaging yourself and others you care for. Far better, instead, to recognise that it’s ok to have an emotional reaction, your inner chimp felt threatened by the other drivers behaviour, you can then name the emotion and explore where it came from, chances are that, as a human, you didn’t like it as it didn’t feel fair. However you can then remind yourself that one of the unfortunate truths of life is that it isn’t fair. Recognising this you can then ask ‘what is useful for me here?’ and hopefully decide that acceptance rather than anger is the best option.
Whilst this may sound a convoluted process it can quickly become 2nd nature with a little application and practice. I don’t think I am overselling acceptance by describing it as one of the most transformative mental habits you can develop. I urge you to start applying it to your life and recognise the benefits that come with it.
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. Whilst I have based the above around application to daily living I hope the athletes amongst you can recognise the potential for application in a sports psychology context.
If you’d like to read further (and better) on this subject then have a look at the following resources:
- Steve Peters: The Chimp Paradox
- Russ Harris: The Happiness Trap
- Tara Brach: Radical Acceptance