Proposing Acceptance: A Therapist's Guide to Promoting Willingness in the Face of Discomfort

Understanding the principles of acceptance and willingness is one thing. But, as therapists, our challenge lies in effectively conveying these principles to individuals experiencing significant emotional or physical discomfort.

So, how can we bridge this gap? Let’s explore ten strategies and thirty examples of dialogue that can guide your therapeutic practice in promoting acceptance and willingness.

1. Normalize Discomfort

Our clients often view their discomfort as abnormal or indicative of something being wrong. However, discomfort is a universal part of human experience.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "It's okay to feel this way. Everyone experiences difficult feelings and thoughts at times."
  • "These feelings might be uncomfortable, but they're a normal part of being human."
  • "Discomfort is a part of life. It's not something to be feared, but something to understand."

2. Reframe 'Problem' Emotions

The idea of 'good' and 'bad' emotions can perpetuate avoidance. As therapists, we can help our clients see their emotions as neutral and informative, rather than problems to be solved.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "Let's try to understand these feelings rather than labeling them as 'bad'. What might they be trying to tell us?"
  • "What if we viewed this anxiety not as a problem, but as a signal your body is sending?"
  • "Could we see this sadness as an experience to explore, rather than an issue to fix?"

3. Highlight Values

Focusing on values can encourage willingness to experience discomfort. It reminds clients that discomfort is often a companion on the journey towards meaningful living.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "What matters most to you in life? How might experiencing this discomfort align with those values?"
  • "Even in the face of this pain, what actions would align with your core values?"
  • "Remember your values. Can we take a small step in that direction, even if it feels uncomfortable?"

4. Foster Acceptance

Acceptance involves making space for uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and sensations without judgment.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "Can we try to sit with this feeling, without trying to change or escape it?"
  • "Could we observe this discomfort without judgment, just for a moment?"
  • "What if we allowed this pain to be present, without trying to push it away?"

5. Promote Willingness

Willingness is about remaining open to discomfort as part of moving towards valued goals.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "How might acting in line with your values feel if you viewed discomfort as a passenger, not a roadblock?"
  • "Can we be willing to invite this discomfort along as we take steps towards what you value?"
  • "What if you chose to face this discomfort, as part of your journey towards your goals?"

6. Focus on the Present

When discomfort arises, it’s easy to get caught up in past experiences or future worries. Encourage your clients to anchor themselves in the present moment.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "Let’s explore what's happening in this present moment. How does this discomfort feel right now?"
  • "Could we bring our attention to the here and now, instead of worrying about what may happen?"
  • "Let's focus on this moment. How are you experiencing this feeling right now?"

7. Facilitate Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves observing one’s internal experiences without judgment. It’s a practical way to foster acceptance.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "Let's take a moment to observe your thoughts and feelings just as they are, without trying to change them."
  • "Could we engage in a little mindfulness? Simply observing your feelings, without judgment."
  • "Can we bring some mindfulness to this experience? Observing without trying to alter it."

8. Reinforce Psychological Flexibility

Help your clients understand that thoughts and feelings are temporary and will change. This can alleviate the pressure to escape or change their current experience.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "Just as the weather changes, so can our internal experiences. They're temporary and will pass."
  • "This pain feels overwhelming right now, but remember, our feelings ebb and flow."
  • "Emotions are like clouds in the sky. They pass. Can we watch this one drift by?"

9. Validate Their Struggles

Validation communicates that their feelings are normal and understandable, fostering a sense of being heard and understood.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "Your feelings are valid. It's perfectly understandable to feel this way."
  • "It sounds like this is really hard for you. You’re not alone in this."
  • "I can see how challenging this is for you. Your feelings are important and valid."

10. Model Acceptance and Willingness

Share your experiences with acceptance and willingness to illustrate these principles.

Dialogue Examples:

  • "In my own experiences, I've found it beneficial to embrace my feelings, even the uncomfortable ones."
  • "There have been times in my life when accepting my feelings and acting according to my values, despite the discomfort, has been transformative."
  • "Like you, I've faced challenges. Acceptance and willingness have been crucial tools for me."

As therapists, our goal is not to eliminate our clients’ discomfort, but to help them change their relationship with it. This shift enables them to live fuller, richer lives, aligned with their values and unimpeded by avoidance. Remember, therapy is not a destination but a journey. As you guide your clients, let acceptance and willingness light the path.

As well as these ten strategies, a wonderful tool to help clients move from "I don't want to experience these thoughts and feelings", to "I can look forward to experiencing them" is The Willingness Ladder by Howard Cooper. Get details of a complete training in the technique here.