The people running through my life are a glorious mixture of cultures, genders, personalities, ages, backgrounds, and sexualities. And I love it. These differences, this variety is what makes us as people so bloody amazing. And accepting these differences, accepting others, makes my world so much richer.
Yet I struggle to accept myself.
I recently finished my allotted run of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions. In the beginning, it felt like stepping down a well-worn path, taking the same steps I had repeated many times before. Heading nowhere, changing nothing. CBT does work, it has a wealth of evidence supporting this. But it doesn’t work for everyone. It doesn’t seem to work for me. I already spend too much time in my head. Overthinking and analysing every single thought and feeling. The CBT exercises made me feel like I was drowning. I was overwhelmed, getting worse and thinking about giving up.
So, I was honest with my counsellor. And we changed approach.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is not widely known compared to its more famous relative. Gone is the diary-keeping, the analysis, the challenging – all the things that overwhelmed me in both time and thoughts. ACT believes that by focusing on our negative thoughts and feelings, by trying to fight or banish them, we actually give them weight. We give them power. Instead, one of the key strands of ACT – and the clue is in the name – is to acknowledge and accept them. To let them go. By doing this and by being willing to have them, we reduce their hold on us.
Acceptance of mental health issues is seen as a key part of recovery. So, it makes sense to me to apply the idea of acceptance to the thoughts and feelings causing and enforcing those issues. And I think acceptance may be that block in the road I have, until now, been unable to find a way around.
I mean, I had accepted I have anxiety and depression. I write about it often enough. I live a life so deeply controlled by them, how could I not. Truly accepting them though, accepting them as part of me. Accepting all the thoughts and feelings that make almost every single day such hard work. That is a much harder thing to ask of myself.
This is the part of me I have viewed as false. An uninvited guest. The part that lies to me. The part of me I have tried to get rid of, fought against for so long. I have tried so hard to work out who I am without my anxiety and depression. And I couldn’t. And I got stuck. All that happened was a tightening of the grip. But maybe I have been going about this all wrong. Given them too much control. The thoughts and feelings all tied up with my mental health issues are false yet they are also not. Accepting that they are part of me but not letting them define me, define my life, just might be the answer.
I will always feel worry, confusion, sorrow, stress, loss, loneliness and doubt. Just as I will always feel joy, relief, pride and excitement. I will always think about what I say and how I behave. Because that is what we do. That is what makes us human. So maybe this acceptance is what I have been searching for. Accepting that I am not abnormal, that these thoughts and feelings are simply that – thoughts and feelings that we all have. Mine are simply exaggerated to crippling heights right now. Maybe they always will be and maybe that’s actually okay.
It is early days and I don’t know where this acceptance journey will take me. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes the thoughts won’t shut down. It is not always what will work right at that moment in time. I am still trying to alter course from a path I have travelled for so long. All I know for now though is this seemingly small act of just acknowledging and labelling my thoughts and feelings has left me lighter than I have felt in years.
And I am willing to see where it will take me. How it will work with the big things I struggle with. How it will change the small things. What difference the other aspects of the ACT approach – being mindful, committing to creating a life full of things I value – will make on my ability to deal with the times when life feels too much. It feels instinctively positive in a way all the analysis never did.
So, I am going to keep practising, keep acknowledging and letting go. Work on accepting me. Who I am, as I am. The good, the bad, the parts I wish I didn’t have. The parts I’m glad I do. My quirkiness, my similarities to others, the differences. I want to accept it all, anxiety and depression, thoughts and feelings included. They are not necessarily who I am. They do not define me. But they are part of what makes me…well…me.
ACT links and a cheeky one thrown in for Matt Haig’s website (Reasons to Stay Alive has held me together more times than I can count):