Practicing Acceptance as a Coping Strategy

By Mary Katherine Lance

Do you know what to do if you get caught in a riptide at the beach? Our instinct says to swim against the riptide and straight to shore. But doing that doesn’t work. It just drains all of your energy until you can no longer keep swimming. Instead, what you’re supposed to do if you get caught in a riptide is to swim parallel to shore. Usually this means that for at least some amount of time you are swimming with the riptide, not against it. Eventually, you make your way out of the riptide, and you can start swimming to shore.

Just like being caught up in a riptide, our instinct when we are caught up in an unpleasant emotion is to fight it by trying to find the quickest way out of it. But, this very rarely works and we mostly just exhaust ourselves. Even if it does work, we have just spent all of our energy getting rid of the unpleasant emotion, so now we no longer have energy for the pleasant things! So, how do we stop doing this? Well, we learn to work with the unpleasant emotion, not against it.

This is called acceptance in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Practicing acceptance means allowing yourself to have a full range of emotions, including both those that are pleasant and those that are unpleasant.

In Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, an ACT workbook by Dr. Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith, acceptance is described in the following way:

“The goal of [acceptance] is to feel all of the feelings that come up for you more completely, even-or especially-the bad feelings, so that you can live your life more completely” (p. 45).

I used to think that accepting my unpleasant emotions and working with them instead of against them was just giving up. To return to the metaphor of a riptide, I thought that accepting an unpleasant emotion meant succumbing to the riptide, not swimming anymore at all and letting myself be swept out to sea. In fact, it’s the opposite. By practicing acceptance, we are able to notice our unpleasant feelings and then redirect our energy away from the frantic efforts we would normally make to get rid of the unpleasant feelings and toward those things we value more. Some people prefer to say they “willfully acknowledge” their unpleasant emotions rather than they “accept them.”

Here’s an example: Recently I forgot to call a friend after promising them that I would. As soon as I realized, I felt ashamed. I could have dealt with that feeling in a few different ways.

  • I could have given up by giving into that unpleasant feeling of shame and berating myself with self-criticism along the lines of “You don’t even deserve to be friends with them.” (If I had done that, I probably never would have called my friend that day.)
  • I could have fought against that unpleasant feeling of shame by calling my friend and spending the first ten minutes apologizing and trying to help myself feel better about my mistake. (If I had done that, I would’ve missed out on other conversations we could have had during that amount of time that I probably would have really liked to have had.)
  • I could have practiced acceptance of the unpleasant feeling of shame. I could have told myself, “Messing up is not fun, and I don’t like how it feels. At the same time, I value making the most out of my time with friends, so I’m going to focus on that even as I have this unpleasant feeling.” (If I had done that, I would’ve apologized to my friend once at the beginning of the conversation, probably would’ve continued to notice myself feeling the unpleasant emotion for a few minutes longer, and then would’ve enjoyed the rest of our conversation.)

To many of us, acceptance in this way is a really new way of thinking. If you’d like to learn more, you can read The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris or complete Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, an ACT workbook by Dr. Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith.


Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005) Get out of your mind and into your life. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

945 E Main St Ste 5
Spartanburg, SC 29302

Got Questions?
Send a Message!