We always hear the same thing: “accept your thoughts!”. But how do you do that? and perhaps more importantly, why would you even want to do that anyway? Some OCD thoughts can be so incredibly horrible, that the last thing you feel like you want to do is to just accept them. Doesn´t accepting them basically mean that you agree with them? No it doesn´t and here´s why….
Acceptance is not agreement
First off I want to share my frustration with the word ´acceptance´. Whilst acceptance is perhaps the most important skill you need to learn when dealing with anxiety disorders, the word is massively overused and misleading. My preferred way of describing acceptance and I think a much more helpful description of what acceptance actually entails is ´making room for´ or ´making space for´. Both of these describe the process of acceptance of anxiety in a much clearer way, i.e. that you do not agree with the thoughts, but that you are going to allow them to be there.
When people talk about accepting anxiety and accepting your thoughts, it´s important to remember what they are not saying. They are not saying that by accepting them that you agree with them or that you don´t think the thoughts are horrible or repulsive, all they are saying is that you do not have any control over what thoughts come into you consciousness (because we don´t) and your thoughts therefore do not reflect anything bad about you as a person. In fact whatever you forcibly try not to think about will, quite paradoxically, be what you end up thinking about. Ira Hyman Ph.D. discusses in the article ´Don´t Think About It´ that “Don’t think about it is bad advice. Although people can have limited success suppressing thoughts for a while, the thought will rebound.”
If you like, you can try this out for yourself right now with a little thought experiment. For the next minute do not think about polar bears. Whatever you do, you are not allowed to think about polar bears. Of course at some point you are going to start thinking about Polar bears, whether you like it or not. So if we don´t have any control over the content of our thoughts, then it is not necessary for us to get so attached and wound up by them.
When accepting (or better, when me make room for) our OCD thoughts all we are doing is accepting the fact that the thoughts keep coming up into our consciousness and by accepting that, we are acknowledging that although we might not like the thoughts, they do keeping coming up and the best way to relate to them is to allow them to be there. When we know that we are only experiencing the thoughts because of our extreme dislike of them we can eventually come to the realization that the thoughts are not dangerous and that we can get on with our lives despite them.
As part of this, it´s important to also realize that what you are doing to try and gain some control over the situation, suppressing the thoughts, is the very thing that actually keeps giving you more of them. Trying to suppress thoughts is like trying to hold an inflatable ball underwater, the more you struggle with them, the more violently they will come to the surface.
My Experience with being afraid of accepting my thoughts
A major OCD theme for me was harm and I often found it incredibly hard to be around knives and other people, especially at the dinner table with friends and family. I remember at this time coming across the idea of accepting my thoughts and how that was going to make them so much easier to deal with, but the idea terrified me. How could I just accept these horrible harm thoughts I was having?
Didn´t acceptance mean that I agreed with them and that if I agreed with them, then might I actually do something to harm someone? Frustratingly I struggled with this for a good few years, before I finally worked out the truth of what acceptance of thoughts actually meant. The difference this made to me and my OCD was huge, once I was able to start making room for my thoughts, they really stopped bothering me so much.
Dropping the struggle
When we drop the struggle with our thoughts, when we make room for them (which as we have already ascertained is what we are doing when we accept them), the thoughts may still come up, but because we have created space for them, they no longer bother us. We don´t like them or agree with them, but we know we can´t control them and that the only helpful option we have is just let them be. When we do this, the thoughts might still come up, but we can get on with the important things in our lives anyway.
All of this is a little easier when you have worked out your values and what´s important to you in life.
When things are hard, if you know what you stand for and where you want to go, you can always put your attention onto those things, despite the intrusive thoughts that you may be having. When you keep doing this over time, you begin to notice how the thoughts bother you less and less, until eventually you almost stop having them at all. Values are incredibly helpful and link into the ACT work that I focus on with my coaching clients (for more information about ACT you can read my blog post here). Getting over OCD is about practicing new ways to respond to our obsessions, by relating to our obsessions and anxiety in a more open way we are able to turn the corner with OCD and keep things in perspective.
Acceptance is such an important topic for OCD recovery and frustratingly, one that many people (myself included) have got stuck on, but hopefully having read this article you can see what is actually meant by acceptance. If you have any questions, please go ahead and ask them and if you don´t already you can follow me on Instagram @robertjamescoachinguk or you can join the Robert James Coaching OCD & Anxiety Support group by following the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/534373070439480/?multi_permalinks=624135358129917¬if_id=1579026755138536¬if_t=group_activity
Many Thanks and remember OCD is a curable problem, you can overcome it 🙂
#ocd #anxiety #ocdblog #acceptance