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How Acceptance Can Transform Your Life

The Four Stages of Acceptance

Some time ago I wrote an article about acceptance, explaining how the act of accepting a situation can transform your state of mind. Often feelings of negativity are caused by an attitude of resistance. For example, about 15 years ago I began to suffer from tinnitus. Initially it caused me a great deal of discomfort—I couldn’t get used to the idea that there was a screaming noise in my ears which I couldn’t get away from. I tried to mask the tinnitus with background noise - at night, I tuned my radio to the white noise between stations. However, after a couple of years, I felt I had no option but to try to accept the tinnitus. It wasn’t going to go away; it was part of my reality now. So one night I went to bed without white noise, and faced up to the noise in my head, with an attitude of acceptance. I decided to “welcome” the noise, to go towards it rather than try to push it away. And to my surprise, this attitude of acceptance had a transformational effect. The tinnitus began to seem less disturbing. It just became a neutral part of my reality. I can hear it as I write these words, but it doesn’t affect me.

I began to use this attitude of acceptance in other situations in my life. I used it when I was ill with a bad cold, feeling miserable. I realised that part of my misery was caused by my resistance to the situation. I became aware that I was thinking negative thoughts like, “I haven’t got time to be ill! I have deadlines to meet! I’ll have to take time off and my colleagues will resent me!” I made a mental switch to acceptance, and asked myself, “What’s really wrong with this situation? I’m lying down, resting, and as long as I allow myself to rest, I’ll get better soon. The deadlines can wait.” I gave myself to the reality of the situation, and paid full attention to the feelings inside my body, my sense of tiredness and discomfort. And immediately, the sense of resistance faded away, together with my feelings of negativity.

Eventually, I formulated a four stage process of acceptance, based on these experiences. This is a simple method you can use in any situation where you feel negativity, and are aware of an attitude of resistance. It works very well with physical problems, and other seemingly unpleasant situations which produce mental discomfort. I go through the stages here, with a simple example.

Stage 1: Become aware of your negative feelings and the thoughts which accompany them. Try to verbalise these - if the situation allows it, write them down. For example, let’s say you’re driving and stuck in heavy traffic. You might verbalise the feelings “impatience, boredom, anxiety.” You might verbalise the thoughts, “I could be here forever! I’m going to be so late! There are so many places I’d rather be than here!”

Stage 2: Give your attention to the reality of your situation. Be mindful of your feelings and your surroundings. For example, in the traffic jam, be aware of the sensation of your hands as they hold the steering wheel, and your feet on the pedals. Look around you, at the other drivers and cars. Give your attention to the sky, to the buildings and trees at the side of the road.

Stage 3: Replace your negative thoughts with conscious positive thoughts. Ask yourself “What’s really wrong with this situation?” For example, in the traffic jam, you might have the conscious thoughts: “What’s the problem? I’m sitting down. There are lots of interesting things to look at. It’s a beautiful day, and I’m listening to music on the car stereo. What does it matter if I’m late?”

Stage 4: If there is any resistance left, let go of it. Don’t mentally push the situation away, welcome it. Embrace the situation.

If you do this, you’ll experience the alchemical power of acceptance, how it can transfer negative moods into positive—or at least neutral—ones. You’ll become powerfully aware that it’s not so much the events or situations in our lives that determine our mood, but our attitude towards them.

Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett Univeristy, and the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of our Minds.

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