Accepting what's tough and doing what matters.
Throughout our lives, we have a mix of experiences, thoughts and feelings. Some of these may be neutral, day-to-day experiences without strong emotions hooked to them. Others may be pleasant and joyful, or unpleasant, uncomfortable and difficult.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, acceptance is the active choice to allow unpleasant experiences, thoughts and feelings to exist without trying to deny or change them. When we are faced with difficult situations, thoughts or feelings, we want to change them, we don't like them, and our minds go into either problem-solving mode or avoidance mode. For example, we may try to think our way out of it and analyze the situation or distract ourselves by binge-watching Netflix or scanning social media for hours on end. Now, both of these strategies can work in the short term, but they often don't work in the long term. For example, when we try to solve a problem that we have no control over, we end up ruminating about the problem and not finding a solution. When we distract ourselves, the problem and difficult feelings are still there waiting for us when we are done. In both situations, we are not moving towards what actually matters to us. Instead, we focus on those problematic things (because they are screaming for our attention) rather than intentionally focusing on what is most important to us. We can use the word willingness to describe being willing to do what matters despite the problematic feelings it may bring up. I call this Doing Despite.
There are many metaphors used to describe how we let our struggles get in our way. One of my favourites is the Tug of War Metaphor.
Imagine that you are standing on one side of a big, huge pit. Then, on the other side is a monster and between the two of you is a rope. The monster represents all those situations, thoughts, and feelings you struggle with. You and this monster are in a battle of tug of war as you try to struggle with those difficult thoughts and feelings. If you could only just drag this monster into the big dark pit, all your troubles would disappear, and everything would be fine. And maybe that's something that you've been trying to do for a while now, trying to just think your way out of it or avoiding things that bring up difficult feelings like fear or anxiety. But there's another option instead of this struggle, instead of this tug of war, you could simply drop the rope and move on with your life.
Willingness is dropping the rope and letting that monster exist. By stopping the struggle, you can now move freely towards what matters.
Here is another one I like to use with kids:
Imagine you have a puppy hungry for your attention. It is really annoying you, so you keep trying to shoo it away. Then the puppy tries even harder to get your attention. Now imagine instead of trying to get it to go away, you make some time in your day for this puppy, you turn around and pet him for a few seconds, and he sits, and you go back to what you were doing. We can do the same with the difficult thoughts and feelings; if we allow them to exist without fighting them, we change our centre of focus from struggling with our feelings to other things that are important to us.
A great therapeutic tool for exploring acceptance and willingness is the Choice Point. The choice point allows you to visualize what comes up in your life that you struggle with and that, in essence, takes you AWAY from what matters. So the question becomes, "Are you willing to accept those thoughts and feelings, to move TOWARDS what matters most to you?" You can learn more about the Choice Point here: https://www.moirestevenson.com/post/choosing-a-direction-the-choice-point
BRINGING IT OUTDOORS
Outdoor activities offer an excellent opportunity to practice willingness. When we are outside, we can choose to take risks. We can go on a different path or route, we can try a new sport or activity, we can go outside with someone who we don't normally go outdoors with. When a risk presents itself, often our initial reaction is to not do it. This is the first reaction, the 'knee-jerk' reaction. We can then ask ourselves if taking this risk moves us towards what matters to us or not. Could taking this risk lead to new skills, a sense of confidence, or a new connection?
Here is a little exercise to try when those ACTION-STOPPING thoughts and feelings come up:
What is important to you at this moment?
What are unpleasant things getting in the way of what is truly important to you? Here we can also use nature to provide an excellent metaphor for paths and obstacles that can get in our way.
Now go back to noticing that unpleasant feeling. Notice where you feel it in your body.
Let the feeling be, don't try to change it. Notice it, breathe into it and allow it to exist. Make space for it.
Bring your attention back to your sensory experiences (for example, the sounds you hear or the sensation of your breath).
Bring back to your mind that which matters most and decide if you do what matters despite that unpleasant feeling.
Are you willing to move towards what matters?