Why is it that we often do all that we can (and that’s a lot) to avoid experiencing those unwanted and uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and sensations? Instead of cultivating psychological acceptance about our interior experiences, we retreat away from them to the point of not hearing, not feeling and not encountering. So what then?
What happens then to our capacity to pay attention to the here and now?
Experiential avoidance is a psychological term used to describe what happens when a person is unwilling to remain in contact with particular thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations.
Initially this offers short-term relief; for example, you’re able to avoid that awkward social situation by either not attending or imbibing one-too-many alcoholic beverages. Or perhaps watching television helps you to fill a void and distract you from those uncomfortable, bored, anxious feelings.
What’s initially appealing about this strategy is that it provides short-term relief. Long-term, this avoidant behaviour can become habituated, and the psychological sidestepping can unwittingly create more harm than good. “Many addictions begin as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, guilt, anger, sadness and so on” (Harris, 2009).
Alternatively, when we start to settle down with every day – every breath – experience, we begin to build our capacity to be with difficult things in a safe way. Our “window of tolerance” expands as we make space for our experiences. This space begins to metaphorically hold what is now becoming less distressing and less traumatic. This space is also nurtured each week as you attend sessions with your therapist.
So what is Experiential Acceptance?
Experiential Acceptance, or more simply put, acceptance, means opening up and making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges and emotions. This can only happen in the here and now, in the present moment. Instead of resisting them or getting overwhelmed by feelings, sensations, urges and emotions, acceptance means that we make some space for them and let them be. Harris (2009) explains the acceptance process as:
- Allowing your thoughts and feelings to “be” just as they are;
- Learning to make room for thoughts, feelings, and sensations (painful, pleasant, or neutral)
- Letting thoughts and feelings come and go as they naturally do with no attempt to change them or rush them along; and
- Making full and open contact with wanted and unwanted psychological experiences.
The above points begin to describe some of the many benefits of working with mindfulness interventions. In the initial stages, this type of work is often facilitated and supported by a trained therapist. After a while, the client understands the therapeutic advantage and is free to regulate their experiences in between sessions as required.
When you change your relationship to the problem, the problem often changes into something far less distressing and traumatic. The client begins to transform what was once maladaptive and challenging into new workable ways of being. It is wonder-filled and inspiring to behold.
What happens when we’re willing to feel bad is that, sure enough, we often feel bad – but without the stress of futile avoidance. Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises, crests, and falls in a series of waves. Each wave washes parts of us away and deposits treasures we never imagined ~ Martha Beck
Taking the first step in any change process can often be the most difficult. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if the above post resonates for you or if you would like to book a session or set up a treatment plan.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Disclaimer: This article contains the views of the author and is not a replacement for therapeutic support. Please reach out to a registered therapist if you are experiencing distress and require assistance.
© First published via the Mannaz Journal – reprinted here with permission.