Stay positive by accepting the negative

You have heard of the Serenity Prayer? It suggests that a person solve problems where possible and accept that some problems cannot be solved. Accepting what can't be changed is important to living a happy life. 

A particular type of acceptance plays an important role in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In ACT, clients learn to accept their own negative thoughts and emotions.

A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder might often think incorrectly that he drove over a pedestrian a few minutes before. If he accepts that thought as just a thought, and not reality, he can keeping driving ahead. Most of us are not troubled by such dramatic thoughts. Instead, we might think briefly that nobody likes us or that we are no good at anything. We could challenge the accuracy of the thoughts, or we could accept them as just thoughts.

Accepting unpleasant events, thoughts, and emotions is not easy. Challenges can pile up. For instance, we do our best to put off ageing, but it happens sooner or later. We can rage against the injustice of ageing or we can accept the damage we cannot prevent.

I suggest to my psychotherapy clients that they go for what I call acceptance plus. I encourage them to accept what they cannot change and to try to make something good out of bad experiences, emotions, and thoughts.

For instance, when I lost my parents, I tried to do more than accept the loss. I tried to honour them by taking on one of their best characteristics. My father always worked hard, and my mother always put the welfare of her children before her own welfare. To the extent that I live out these characteristics, I am a better person.

I once got into trouble at work over something trivial. Rather than raising a ruckus about being persecuted, I accepted my situation and did my best to learn from the experience. My goal was to prevent myself from making a serious mistake in the future.

When I experience negative emotions, I often accept them as messages telling me to do something. I try to do something positive in response. For instance, I might apologise and try to make amends for doing something that led me to feel guilty.

A highly adaptable person can accept troubling experiences, thoughts, or emotions and even get something good out of them. If you look for opportunities, you might find yourself to be that highly adaptable person.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.