—What does Acceptance Mean?

Newer approaches to anxiety treatment may advocate acceptance of the symptoms. What does acceptance of the symptoms mean?

First, acceptance cannot mean being resigned to the symptoms. Resignation means tolerating the symptoms because you have no choice. Your country has been defeated in battle and the symptoms represent an occupying force. You don’t like it, but there’s not much you can do about it. Maybe you give up fighting the symptoms, but you don’t give up hating them.

Second, acceptance means you give up any negative reactions to your own anxiety. You stop getting entangled with your symptoms. So you give up being frustrated and angry with the symptoms. You give up hating the symptoms. You give up fighting the symptoms. You give up trying to suppress the symptoms. Why do you do all this? Because strong negative emotions trigger your stress response. When you hate your symptoms, cortisol is released into your bloodstream, increasing alertness and tension. Paradoxically, your body is responding exactly as it would respond to a predator, but now anxiety is the predator. When you detect arousal in your body, you feel threatened, and when you feel threatened, your arousal increases. Now you’re headed for a panic attack.

Third, acceptance means you give up all entanglements with yourself. You let go of all self-reactions, which means you let go of any frustration, anger, or disappointment with yourself. You stop blaming or guilting yourself, stop belittling yourself because you have anxiety or its symptoms. These strong negative self-reactions also trigger your stress response, which just make matters worse.

Fourth, because self-reactions follow self-judgments, letting go of self-reactions requires that you let go of self-judgments. For example, you feel like a screw up because you have anxiety, then you experience guilt. So when you let go of the guilt, you necessarily let go of the self judgment that precedes the guilt. Again, this is more than resignation. Acceptance does not mean, for example, that you accept that you’re a screw up. Acceptance means you stop labeling yourself a screw up in the first place.

Letting go of self-reactions is sometimes difficult. Some self-reactions seem to be rooted deeply in one’s character. Remember the story of the Trojan Horse? The Greeks lay siege to Troy, but its walls were impenetrable. So the Greeks hatched a plan: They built a wooden horse, apparently to honor the Gods, then sailed away, leaving the horse on the beach outside the city gates. Inside the horse, Greek soldiers were hidden. The Trojans pulled the horse inside their gates, and that night, Greek soldiers jumped out and conquered the city.

Self-judgments are anxiety’s Trojan Horse. You can quickly learn not to fight against the symptoms. Just accept that the symptoms are what they are, that they’ll go away when they want to, and stop resisting or suppressing them. So instead, anxiety gives you something you can buy into, some self-judgment that smuggles into your head an intense negative emotional self-reaction, thereby triggering your stress response.

In the West, we’re used to judging everything, including and especially ourselves. Self-judgments are so automatic they make the perfect Trojan Horse. Self-judgments sucker you in believing that you’re intrinsically flawed, maybe even that you deserve to be punished. You need to pay up, pay your dues, change your ways. Whatever their exact content, the common message of all such negative self-judgments is that you’re not worthy. You’re weak, low, despicable. Anxiety, on the other hand, is strong.

Fifth, acceptance means turning off all your fantasies about the judgments of others, about how they see you. These fantasies are just inferences, and like all inferences, they are prone to error. And even if they were reality, it wouldn’t make any difference. Every single human being is dealing with something that we know nothing about. Suffering is the universal bond that all finite beings share. So you’re going to judge somebody? Or you’re going to take somebody’s judgments into your soul and make them real by making their reaction to you into your reaction to you? Don’t even go there.

Judgments are the Problem

What you’re seeing here is that judgments are themselves the problem. Judgments provide the basis of strong emotional reaction that keep you stuck. Judgments form a layer of abstraction between you and reality.

Judgments have both an active and a passive function. In the passive role, this layer of abstractions selects only information compatible with your self-reactions. Compatible information is admitted as evidence confirming your view of the world, of your life, and of yourself. Incompatible information is rejected, never processed. So you fight anxiety for years and see yourself as weak. Anybody can fight a few minutes or a few days, but to fight for years, that takes perseverance, that takes guts. But this interpretation gets filtered out, so it never even occurs to you, never makes it to conscious awareness. In a sense, your judgments keep you in your own bubble. The walls of your bubble represent the parameters of your self-concept.

In the active role, your abstraction layer spins up endless stories about the world, about you, about you in the world, about others, about your future, about the future of you and others in the world. You get the point. When you believe that you are weak and helpless against the anxiety monster, your abstraction layer spins up endless catastrophic thoughts. Each such thought assumes the catastrophe as its starting point, so it represents a threat that’s impossible to cope with, by definition. The catastrophic thoughts ”What if Godzilla gets loose?” asks the impossible, asks that you plan for a scenario where Godzilla is already loose. Once loose, Godzilla always destroys Tokyo, that’s just how the world works. Yet, because catastrophic thoughts are threats, they demand action and are impossible to detach from. All of this reinforces your anxiety.

Positive self-reactions don’t make it into your stories, because the positive is automatically filtered out, not available for story making. You ask what’s the worst that could happen, never what’s the best that could happen.

All of the above would be okay, if only you had some means of correcting and bringing balance to your ideas. Unfortunately, what your abstraction layer never does is test reality, not in any systematic way. That’s science, and science is only a few hundred years old. There’s no part of the brain specifically devoted to doing science, not in the same way that there’s a part of the brain devoted to detecting threats, the amygdala. Science is a product of education and culture, not a product of biology. You’re in a bubble. Just because your stories feel true doesn’t mean they are true.

Since you are contained within the self-confirming walls of your bubble, completely impervious to new ideas, you need a way to get some distance on your own mental functioning.

That’s where mindful awareness comes in. First, you need to know that an abstraction layer exists between you and reality. Second, you need to understand it’s passive and active functions. Third, you need to understand how that creates a self-sustaining bubble of judgments and self-judgments. Fourth, you need understand that just because your stories feel true doesn’t mean they are true. That’s your bubble talking. Fifth, you need mindful awareness to recognize when your stories are strong, and to get some objectivity on your judgments and self-judgments.

Things becoming Clear

Once your understand the passive and active role played by judgments, it’s easy to understand many seemingly esoteric aspects of mindfulness meditation.

Judgments are a system of abstractions that lie between you and reality. If you suspend judging, there is nothing between you and reality. By viewing life without an interpretive framework, you cultivate present-moment awareness. Your interpretive framework isn’t filtering out inconsistent information anymore. This is also known as beginners mind. Whereas experts bring with them a whole system of ideas, beginners filter nothing, which means that the beginner experiences everything.

Likewise, Anxious clients are sometimes advised to bring a sense of curiosity to their anxious experiences. Curiosity helps you get beyond the worries and catastrophic thoughts in order to be curious about the fact that these occurred at all.

The importance of suspending judgment is contained within the very definition of mindfulness. Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. When you’re immersed in your abstractions, you’re not in the moment, you’re at least one layer removed. When you react to your own self, you’re self aware of your reactions, which means you’re two layers removed from the present moment.