The Irony of Emotional Acceptance
Accepting unwanted emotions could help us feel better.
Posted Feb 28, 2019
Emotions: Their ample, vibrant hues adorn the scenes of our lives. If you look at some of the moments that stand out in your memory, in all likelihood, a potent emotion was right there with you, whether it was sadness, anger, happiness, awe, pride, anxiety, regret, amusement, shame, fear, guilt, or surprise, to name some among many.
Emotions serve us in a variety of ways. For example, they give us valuable messages (e.g., fear in an unsafe situation), reveal how important something is to us (e.g., you have stronger emotions in your romantic relationship than you do when you’re shopping for cereal or having a casual conversation with a stranger), and prompt us to act (e.g., you stroke a partner’s face with love or turn away from spoiled food in disgust).
But the story of emotions is a bit more nuanced and complex, as it isn’t simply about what we feel in response to what happens around us. We tirelessly size up our inner world and place value judgments on it. Depending on the circumstances we’re in and the messages we’ve received along the way about what we’re allowed to feel, emotions (or at least certain ones) may get tagged as acceptable, healthy, or reasonable, or they might get labeled as wrong, crazy, or threatening. For instance, researchers at the University of Oxford highlighted the following categories of disapproving beliefs when it comes to painful emotions:
- Emotions are too powerful and can’t be managed.
- Emotions are bad and/or ridiculous.
- Emotions are defective and make no sense.
- Emotions are unproductive.
- My emotions could sabotage me or other people.
- My emotions might spread to other people and I can’t let that happen.
What’s thorny about this is that if we have a negative outlook on our emotions, we’ve got a whole new load to carry—we’re more likely to have another negative emotion layered on top of the one we’re already experiencing. The emotions we have about how we feel are known as meta-emotions. For example, let’s say we see sadness as a sign of personal weakness and inadequacy. Because of this viewpoint, we might feel shame or fear in response to our sadness. And it’s not just uncomfortable emotions that get a bad rap. People can feel nervous about pleasant emotions too.
Our ideas about our emotional life don’t just impact how we feel about our emotions, but the steps we take to respond to them as well. To illustrate, let’s stay with our example of sadness. We regard it as a signal that we’re weak and defective in some way, and this idea stirs up intense shame. The big question now: What do we do with all of this? Considering that we’re treating sadness as intolerable and we feel ashamed of it, we’re relatively unlikely to talk about it with someone else, to be kind to ourselves in the face of it, or to allow ourselves to feel sad and see what happens. No, instead we’re probably going to be more inclined to react to sadness in other ways, such as:
- Mentally beating ourselves up for feeling it
- Racking our brains over why we feel this way and why we can’t get over it and feel happy like everyone seems to feel
- Trying to cover it up when we’re around other people
- Self-medicating with alcohol or other substances
How we choose to respond to our emotions also has an impact on how we feel and on our quality of life. If we criticize ourselves all the time, that harsh voice gets stronger and we’ll continue unintentionally manufacturing more shame. We could mull over why we feel the way we do and question why we can’t make it go away, but this approach is more likely to leave us feeling even worse. If we try to hide our sadness and mask what feels so unspeakable, we’re liable to bear the cost of this strategy, experiencing more distress, less comfort, and more detached relationships. And although we can try to escape through alcohol and other substances, this opens the door to use disorders and other problems.
There are a variety of other ways in which rejecting what we feel sets the stage for giving us more of the very thing we don’t want. For instance, when people are scared of emotions, this forecasts difficulty managing anger, feeling more upset, drawing from pleasant memories to feel better, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, people who view uncomfortable emotions as bad are also less likely to be empathic toward themselves. And the idea that painful emotions are hazardous is related to lower odds of naming such emotions for one’s children, a valuable step in emotional skill-building.
So if it doesn’t serve us to treat our emotions as off-limits, what’s the alternative? When we accept distressing emotions as being a universal, natural part of life, it’s ironically linked to experiencing them less and, in the long run, having better emotional health.
But why might this be? Why would accepting the emotions we don’t want generally be connected with them dwindling rather than growing? Researchers have proposed several possible explanations:
- Rumination can make people feel worse, and individuals who accept upsetting emotions don’t tend to ruminate over them as much.
- Efforts to avoid what a person feels can go awry and have a boomerang effect, furnishing them with more of what they tried to push away.
- Individuals who accept their emotions may be spared an extra layer of emotional pain by not having to feel upset about feeling upset.
- Disquieting emotions that we meet with acceptance are less likely to have as much staying power.
Acceptance is a mindset, an approach of giving ourselves permission to experience our emotions and taking the perspective that they’re human rather than silly, weak, crazy, wrong, dangerous, or beyond our power to ever be able to manage. It’s about challenging that self-critical inner voice that says we can’t feel what we do, or that an emotion will harm us or be a badge of our inherent fault or shame. Acceptance is about giving ourselves the space to listen to ourselves in a nonjudgmental way. So what are some possible ways we can start to build more inner acceptance into our lives?
- This exercise was adapted from a study on meta-emotions. See if you can notice your own meta-emotions by filling in the blanks of sentences like the ones below. If other emotions strike you as being especially relevant or meaningful in your own life, you might try this exercise with those as well. You may find that you don’t have much of a reaction to some emotions and a powerful reaction to others, and that’s fine. There’s no right or wrong answer.
I feel ________ about feeling angry.
I feel ________ about feeling sad.
I feel ________ about feeling afraid
I feel ________ about feeling happy.
I feel ________ about feeling surprise.
I feel ________ about feeling disgust.
I feel ________ about feeling relief.
I feel ________ about feeling guilt.
I feel ________ about feeling regret.
I feel ________ about feeling shame.
I feel ________ about feeling anxiety.
I feel ________ about feeling love.
- Consider jotting down what beliefs you hold about various emotions. Where did your ideas come from and is there another possible outlook? See if you can challenge a negative belief about an emotion and look at it in a different light.
- Take an emotion that you disapprove of or that you’ve been hard on yourself for experiencing. Now imagine how you might feel if you knew that it was perfectly okay to experience that emotion, even though it’s painful. Do you notice a difference? What difference, if any, do you notice?
Choose an emotion that you tend to criticize yourself for experiencing. Would you be prepared to tell a close loved one the same thing you tell yourself? If not, why not?
This exercise was adapted from a research study on self-compassion: Imagine a close friend or mentor who cares about you and feels immense compassion for you. Picture this friend or mentor giving you their thoughts and guidance about an emotion you tend to judge yourself for experiencing. Try writing down what this person would tell you.
Reflect on the following quote from the novel A Torch Against the Night by Ms. Sabaa Tahir: “Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don't lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.” How might this apply to your life? What purpose could your emotions serve, even the ones you don’t want?
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