We all have negative thoughts and emotions that we don’t like, thoughts that we’re not good enough, that we’re lazy, that there’s something wrong with us (you can add your own here …………). These thoughts can be so intrusive that they affect our day-to-day lives, our self-worth, and our long-term psychological health. And we want them to stop. How do you get rid of your negative thoughts? Do you try to change them, stop them? And does it work? A recent series of studies has found that the best way to get rid of negative thoughts and emotions is counter-intuitive: The best thing to do is to ACCEPT them. Acceptance means acknowledging negative thoughts and emotions as a natural occurrence without judging them, as if you were watching a ticker tape - the stock market quotes travelling along the bottom of your screen during a business or ﬁnancial program. When you accept your thoughts and emotions, they run their natural, relatively short-lived course, rather than being magniﬁed.
According to this study, people who habitually accept their negative thoughts and emotions have better psychological health (fewer depressive symptoms, less anxiety, better psychological wellbeing), immediately and over the long-term. Some of the other strategies that people use to deal with negative emotions and thoughts are reappraisal (reframing thoughts and emotions to give them another meaning), reﬂection or rumination, observing present moment experiences, describing internal experiences, acting with awareness, and attempting to be non-reactive to them. But this study showed that acceptance was still better than these other strategies for psychological health. And these results were true regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and the severity of life stressors.
Why would accepting thoughts and emotions we don’t like lead to better psychological health? Because people who habitually accept their negative thoughts and emotions end up having fewer of them. Acceptance keeps people from exacerbating or prolonging their negative emotions, which allows them to pass relatively quickly.
We’ve all heard that what we resist persists. This study shows that practicing non-resistance makes them go away: Acceptance helps people change their emotions, kind of on the sly, without directly intending to do so.