The Paradox of Acceptance and Psychological Change

Lindsay Holmes has penned a widely-circulated piece on what not to say to people with anxiety disorders. Many people respond to the chronically anxious with phrases like “Calm down”, “Why can’t you relax?” or “Just do it”. As she and I discussed, these well-intended responses often make people feel they have to fight to defend their anxiety to others, which makes their emotional state worse rather than better:

“Obviously if they could overcome this they would because it would be more pleasant,” Humphreys says. “No one chooses to have anxiety. Using [these phrases] makes them feel defensive and unsupported.”

In couple counselling sessions and in life more generally I have countless times listened to one person express a negative emotion and then another well-meaning person respond by tell them effectively that no, they don’t actually have (or should not have) the negative emotion they just revealed. I am sure I have done the same thing, and left suffering people feeling rejected as a result.

The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers described a paradox of acceptance and psychological change that I often saw validated in my experience as mental health professional. Simply put, the moment people feel accepted in their misery is often the moment they begin to change. “Letting go” of anxiety, sadness, hurt, anger, grief and the like is not easy when someone tries to actively take it from us. Perverse as it sounds, we hang on to our dysphoria more rather than less when someone tries to argue us out of it. Yet when painful emotions are recognized and accepted, letting them go voluntarily suddenly seems possible.

If someone you love is suffering emotionally and you want it to stop, ordering them to change is likely only to generate mutual frustration. But being with them non-judgmentally in their suffering strangely enough can sometimes be the doorway to exiting it together.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.