Written by Philippa Walsh
Change can be challenging - especially when the circumstances bringing it about are beyond our control. In the normal course of our lifetimes, change is something we learn to adapt to; we might have to alter our career, deal with the breakdown of a relationship or come to terms with a long-term health condition.
Sudden and unwanted change can trigger a whole spectrum of emotions, some of which may cause us distress.
When trying to cope with distressing emotions and the practical tasks that might be required in order to deal with change, it is tempting to want to push our feelings away. This is rarely an effective coping strategy.
We can learn to take action without having to eliminate or fight our feelings - there is a different approach.
When we think of acceptance, this can be a difficult concept in itself. Of course we should not accept situations that have a continuing negative effect on our mental and physical well being (such as abusive relationships); but what about situations or events that have already happened or we simply have no control over?
Ruminating on events that we have no power to change and battling against difficult emotions is a bit like being caught in quicksand; the more we struggle, the further we get pulled under until we're well and truly stuck.
Emotional pain is only perpetuated when we allow ourselves to become enmeshed in it. A lifetime of struggling against past events or change and the emotions that come up is a lot like trying to run away from your own shadow. This only serves to increase distress.
To establish control over situations that make us feel helpless and reduce the distress of negative emotions, there are several strategies that can help.
Acceptance is about committing to a way of life in which we don't allow ourselves to get caught up with fighting against the things we can't control and responding to change in a way that aligns closely to our values.
Viewing change as a natural form of self-progression and observing and accepting our feelings as an outgrowth of circumstances is liberating.
If we can accept past events and embrace rather than resist change, our associated feelings will become less distressing.
A Useful Acceptance Technique
Learn to label your emotions for what they are: sadness, shame, grief, anger, hurt, rejection etc...pause and imagine that you are an objective observer. Simply notice your feelings without responding to them. A useful way of doing this is to imagine the following:
Imagine that you are driving a bus that is full of difficult passengers. Each passenger represents a negative emotion or thought you have and they are distracting you from moving forwards. Instead of listening and getting sidetracked by these unhelpful passengers, you keep on driving towards your goal of living a more positive life and commit yourself to stop getting sidetracked.
By externalizing emotions, it is easier to avoid getting caught up in them. Negative emotions are normal and should not be thought of as something to avoid; by learning to sit with them and observe them, they no longer have to be seen as too painful to endure.
Living a Valued Life
Not living in alignment with our core values or confusing goals with values can lead to psychological discord. Having value-based goals and a willingness to move towards them, is fundamental to our wellbeing. Often when change occurs that is beyond our control, we get so caught up in trying to resist it that we lose sight of what's important. It is helpful to view adversity as a temporary setback rather than a permanent obstacle.
Remember to focus on your own values - what matters to you the most? What gives your life purpose and meaning? By focusing on what values are important to you and thinking about how you can move towards them, it becomes easier to let go of the inner turmoil caused by fighting against change and denying distressing emotions.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance
and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.