When difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences emerge, clients who often turn to worry and rumination find acceptance-based strategies to be attractive and useful, particularly if they’re able to get some distance from the discomfort that comes with overthinking.
The concept of acceptance might seem straightforward enough, but when our clients say things like, “I just have to accept a bad situation,” or, “I accept my feelings by distracting myself,” their attempts to accept uncomfortable inner experiences have more in common with hopelessness and experiential avoidance than acceptance.
To assist clients who struggle with the application of acceptance, it’s helpful to share the self-talk mantra, “accept and redirect,” which cues them to remember that they can accept unwanted thoughts and feelings without judgement, and then redirect their attention or behavior to whatever is meaningful in the moment.
Below are some examples of client challenges, the minimally effective tactics they might use to cope, and ways in which the “accept and redirect” mantra could lead to more desirable outcomes:
• If a client struggling with social anxiety says, “I try to accept that my heart is beating fast, but I find myself focusing on it so much that I can’t think of anything to say,” they could make plans in the future to “accept” the noticeable heartbeat as nothing more than a physical sensation or internal annoyance, and then “redirect” attention to others by asking questions to demonstrate interest, or by making a brief comment about the shared situation to promote small talk.
• When a client who frequently wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep says, “I accept that insomnia and depression are just awful things I have to live with,” they could plan to “accept” unwanted thoughts and the urge to ruminate, acknowledge that they’ll benefit from revisiting these concerns during the day, and “redirect” attention to their breathing or a progressive muscle relaxation exercise.
• A client who passively withdraws from a friendship because, “I have to accept that my friend is selfish and I don’t want to create conflict,” could plan to “accept” the authentic irritability or disappointment linked to the belief that they’re being disrespected, and “redirect” attention and behavior to assertive communication that clearly expresses their preferences and expectations.
Joel Minden, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for anxiety. He is a diplomate of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy; adjunct professor in the department of psychology at California State University, Chico; and author of the blog, CBT and Me, on www.psychologytoday.com.