A common dilemma for people engaged in cognitive therapy is understanding when to try and change a thought, behaviour, feeling, situation, relationship, etc and when to accept it. One way I explain this apparent contradiction is to say that the first stage of cognitive therapy is all about change. We identify specific problems in the client's life and come up with goals embodying the ways that person's life would be different if we solved those problems – this is all about change.
We then identify the thoughts, beliefs and behaviours that are maintaining the person's problems and start to modify those – again, our agenda here is change.
But more advanced cognitive therapy places far more emphasis on acceptance than change. Increasingly, the new 'third wave' forms of cognitive therapy like compassion-focused therapy (CFT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are a fusion of mindfulness, cognitive therapy and other approaches, such as experiential or psychodynamic therapies, to help treat more longstanding or hard-to-reach problems and conditions.
Acceptance is at the core of mindfulness theory and practice, because the Buddhists who originally harnessed the power of mindfulness understood that in life there are many things we can neither change nor control. We all get older and eventually die, as do those we love and care for. We all suffer from problems with our health, especially as we get older. Many things appear entirely beyond our personal control, such as climate change, the fluctuating economy, wars, natural disasters and even the actions of our own Government. So it is fruitless for us to spend hours worrying or disturbing ourselves about the things we cannot change – the Buddha discovered 2,500 years ago that an accepting mindset will greatly reduce our distress and unhappiness.
And we often find that, counterintuitively, mindfully accepting aversive or unpleasant feelings such as anxiety or anger and 'breathing into' them, rather than struggling, fighting or resisting them, helps those feelings naturally decrease and even dissolve. Acceptance can be both a powerful and empowering approach to solving some of our most painful problems.
In summary, change what you can and accept what you can't – not easy, by any means, but a very helpful way to live if you can manage it.
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