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Acceptance: letting go of the struggle for control.

Updated: Feb 20, 2022

Why you cannot control your thoughts and feelings.

Our yearning for control is actually the reason for our struggles.

When I was struggling with depression and anxiety, each day was a battle against my own mind.

It wasn't a battle I was winning either. I was losing most of the time. Many days, it left me defeated, feeling even more hopeless about tomorrow.

It was only till much later that I realised that most of my internal battles revolved around me trying to exert control over things I had absolutely no control over.

This included:

  • Worrying about a presentation I had to give the next day, and whether people would like my work.

  • Getting anxious about an upcoming exam and wondering if I was prepared enough.

  • Feeling lousy about a mistake that happened in the day, and trying to brainstorm a dozen different ways I can prevent it from happening again.

  • Worrying about whether it would rain on the weekend and ruin the plans I made for my wife and I.

  • Falling into a low mood and wanting to quickly stop feeling that way.

  • Thinking that "everything is hopeless" and telling myself I should not think that way.

Yet, does all this struggling really help with anything?

Not really. It mostly resulted in even more negative emotions and harsh self-judgment. The ongoing struggle for control only took away more precious time from my wife and I, and got in the way of staying focused on the things that really matter.

Take for example an upcoming exam. Sure one might argue that getting anxious and feeling a bit of pressure might help, but then again, wouldn't I be able to study just as effectively without that self-imposed pressure?

It would probably be a lot less stressful an experience and I might even be able to enjoy the process of studying more, while also giving myself the space to take nice breaks in-between.

It's the same thing with rumination. Let's say I did something I regretted during the day. Does all my lying awake at night thinking about the various scenarios I could have acted differently really help make it better?

Maybe, but only if it so happens the same incident arises again. Yet, what has this cost me at the present? It's only making me lose sleep now while also getting more anxious in the moment.

I'll even suffer the next day from a lack of sleep, all over trying to control something that I can't.

This really begs the question - do we really have control over the things we are trying to control?

Letting go of the things we can't control.

You might see that I've highlighted a few words in the above examples. Take a look at those again and you might see a few themes arise.

The unhappiness and anxiety and ongoing struggles many of the times stem from us trying to control have absolutely no control over.

Most people actually recognise that don't have control over the below:

  • What will happen to me in the future.

  • What has happened in the past.

  • What other people will think and say or do.

  • What I would be like tomorrow.

  • Whether it would rain tomorrow.

  • Whether my wife will be happy this weekend.

In our efforts, we might think that we are able to influence the outcomes, but to what extent? Only a tiny fraction of an amount!

Take for example the anxiety over an upcoming presentation. Sure I can prepare and rehearse my speech a thousand times over, but in the end will that provide certainty as to the outcome I want?

Nope. Anything can happen, and everybody is somebody else. I cannot predict that I will speak perfectly well that day nor will my efforts assuredly lead to them liking me or my work. Was it really worth all that anxiety trying to "control" the outcome?

Most of you will get this idea quite quickly, in fact I hear some of you say:

"Yes I get it. But I still can't help worrying. What do I do?"

The wisdom of Acceptance.

We can't talk about Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) without fully understanding what the idea of Acceptance truly is.

What is acceptance really? What does it really mean to accept things as the way they are?

Well, it all comes back to the idea of control - to let go of the struggle to control the things we don't have control over.

What happens when we do so? We learn to accept things as they happen and as they come. We allow them to be, rather than try to change what has happened, or will happen.

And along the way, you will learn the strategies from ACT to tackle them in more effective way.

At this point, I wanted to check if any of you more observant ones out there might have picked out on a little oddity in this article.

Mainly, that my last two examples were slightly different from the rest. For reference, I'll include them again below:

  • Falling into a low mood and wanting to quickly stop feeling that way.

  • Thinking that "everything is hopeless" and wanting to stop thinking that way.

They are odd examples aren't they, not so much of the past or future or anything external like other people.

They are about our emotions and thoughts.

Wait what? You mean we don't have control over them as well?

Yup, and you probably already know this too. It's the reason why you're feeling the way you're feeling and can't really stop it. If you're depressed and in a low mood, it's not something you can will yourself out of!

If only it's that simple!

It's also the reason why you're overthinking at night and can't seem to shut down your mind, or why you're stuck in a cycle of rumination, or getting anxious that your might get anxious.

The fact is we are not very good at controlling our thoughts and feelings.

You cannot control how you think and feel.

This is based on scientific facts and it's the reason why ACT works well as a therapy for some compared to others.

Open up any self-help book and you'll mostly likely be faced with pretty much the same advice, teaching you to identify your negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

For example, if you're familiar with Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), it might teach you to check if your thoughts or beliefs are rational, and if not, to look for evidence and replace your beliefs with a more accurate one.

However, I'm pretty sure that you've already tried any countless number of times to think positively about things, but those negative thoughts keep coming back again and again.

It's just the way our mind works. It's automatic.

I won't go into it too much but ACT if based on the most up date scientific model of how we think. We think in terms of Relations (i.e. Relational Frame Theory).

Our thoughts are triggered in response to specific events and programmed to arise completely on their own.

We can't stop them even if we wanted to.

Here's a simple experiment to show you how impossible it is to control your mind.

Think of a cold can of coca cola. In fact, here's a picture of it.

Now just imagine picking up this can of coke and drinking it.

Your mind will automatically recall how it feels like to pick up this cold can. You might even feel your hands feeling a bit icy.

What does it taste like? You probably can remember what the sweet taste as you bring your lips to the can and take a drink. And how it flows down your throat!

It's entirely automatic.

Now let's see if we can get rid of these "automatic" thoughts through our own will.

For the next 10 seconds, I'd like you to close your eyes and try to think of anything else BUT the cold coca cola can drink.

Let's go.


Could you do it? Probably not right? The image of the coke can, or the icy feel in your hands or even the taste will still linger in your minds no matter what you tried.

Here's another similar experiment - this time with emotions.

Imagine it was late at night one day and while walking home, a stranger suddenly grabs you and holds a knife to your throat. He tells you this:

"For the next thirty seconds, you must not be afraid. If I sense even the slightest tinge of fear or anxiety, I'll kill you"

Do you think you could stop feeling anxious or fear? Seriously, imagine it.

Again, it's virtually impossible.

These two experiments suggest one thing - we can't control our thoughts and feelings, even when our lives depends on it.

The path to Acceptance.

So here we are. We can add our thoughts and feelings to the list of things that are out of our control.

What then? Are we stuck feeling and thinking like this forever?

That's a rhetorical question of course and the answer is no.

Acceptance is the key and it starts with letting go of your need to control. Whether it is you're battling depression or anxiety, or if your relationships aren't making you happy, or if you get panic attacks at times, or if you're dealing with a personality disorder - stop trying to struggle.

Stop trying to find a way out.

Instead, find a way in.

Learn to accept things as they are, including your thoughts and feelings. Your ongoing struggle doesn't help, and sometimes, it only makes things worse.

In ACT, you'll learn about four strategies.

  • Cognitive Defusion: Learning to gain distance from your thoughts. Learning to become neutral to them instead of getting caught up in them.

  • The Observing Mind: To understand that we tend to see ourselves from the frame of reference of our thoughts and self-stories. To hone the part of our mind that can simply observe and accept instead.

  • Connecting to the Present: Learning skills to keep us focused on the present, the here and now, instead of getting lost in the past or future.

  • Acceptance: Focuses on allowing your emotions to "just be", to learn strategies to handle even the most turbulent of emotions.

If you read into them deeply, you will see that all four strategies focus on the idea of acceptance. Meaning that they are not at all about trying to change the situation or get rid of your thoughts and emotions.

All these strategies actually create space for you to do a very important thing.

It's the thing that your current struggles have been getting in the way off. It stems from a simple question:

"What would you be doing if all your problems suddenly went away?"

Take your time and think about it. Don't worry, we will get to that next time.

For now my friends, know that that is exactly where Acceptance can take us.

Thanks for reading and I hope you get a chance to read and use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy through your own struggle. Thanks, Hernping


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