Lockdown Life 4: Approval, Acceptance and Affirmations21 May 2020
Welcome back, friends and family (I consider you all both). We ended the last article with a brief description of disputation, accompanied by three interlocked disputation questions that can all be employed in cooperation with one another to unveil an alternate explanation for a troublesome thought or belief. We will return to disputation in a future article, but it would be most beneficial for us to continue to widen our understanding before deepening its focus on such specific practices.
This brings us quite naturally to the subject of today’s article; acceptance oriented thinking versus approval oriented thinking. Many readers will be aware of the well-known prayer for the “grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other”. Whether you are religious or not, whether you believe in and connect to a higher power or not; this sentence contains within it the spirit of the concept of “acceptance”. Words are not simply mundane means of communication, they are not simply a combination of letters, syllables and etymological history. Words carry with them concepts and energies that often transcend their meanings. Acceptance, for example, tends to carry a warm and liquid energy with it; it exudes openness, empathy and a healthy degree of detachment from one’s covetous primal nature. This becomes more obvious when its energy, its colour, its overall feeling is contrasted with that of “approval”. Approval is a word with harder edges, a word that is more solid, unyielding and harsh than the warm, liquid embrace of “acceptance”. Approval carries several negative concepts with it; such as rejection, harsh judgment and condemnation. This is because approval is a term which also embodies its opposite, disapproval. The reason that “approval” tows the energy of “disapproval” so closely behind it is that when we think in terms of approval, we are setting a rigid standard for ourselves, others and reality itself. When that standard isn’t met, the inevitable result is disapproval. Without disapproval, and all of its negative implications, approval is a term without any utility or logic appended to it. Simply put, to approve means that disapproval is possible, perhaps even likely, because approval is not an automated process (such as acceptance) but rather a conscious choice between either validation or rejection; every decision to approve something involves also considering whether to disapprove of it. The two terms are inseparable; disapproval isn’t only the opposite of approval but also an unavoidable part of its mechanism.
“Acceptance”, conversely, is different. Acceptance isn’t the setting of a standard, it isn’t evaluative, it isn’t something that can fail to manifest, thus resulting in its opposite. Acceptance simply “is”. Acceptance means, in a therapeutic and psychological sense, to come to terms with things that can’t be changed and to, therefore, become resistant to distress produced by disapproving of those things. Acceptance works in the same way regarding those things that can be changed but which the individual can’t change immediately or can change immediately but must continue to put up with during that process of change. Simply put, if you have no option but to endure something, then you should accept it instead of focusing on whether or not you approve of it. Acceptance is, in this way, essentially the opposite of a cognitive distortion or a thinking trap; it is a mode of thinking that smooths over the rough edges of the mind, a comfortable blanket that wraps itself around the mind and insulates it against stress.
Imagine that you have purchased a new car that you are particularly enthralled with; it is something you are proud of and place immense value in. This, in itself, is a perfectly healthy way of thinking. You earned something, you had a goal and you achieved it; the car symbolises your hard work and the achieving of your goals. Now, imagine that you are driving that car around in a state of approval or disapproval thinking. You are placing demands on reality by doing so; you are demanding that it operates in a way which meets your approval. If the operations of reality are to stray from those demands then you are inevitably going to become upset, significantly more upset than you would be if you weren’t constantly creating and enforcing these demands on your environment. This is the kind of thinking that tinges the pleasure of driving your new car with an underlying state of anxiety and tension; under the surface, you are quietly catastrophizing, you are primed to see any damage that might happen to your car as a world-ending calamity, and you are painfully aware (subconsciously if not consciously) of the possibility of this world-ending calamity happening. Even if your car isn’t damaged, the experience of driving it is tainted by the tension created by your need to approve of everything that happens to it. Your mind is vigilantly policing reality to ensure that it approves of its contents, which is also to say that it is seeking out things it disapproves of so that it can react to them and bring them back into balance. What this bringing back into balance often involves, when it comes to approval thinking, is either a possessive attempt to control the world around you (including yourself and others) or an attempt to placate the resulting emotions via an internal dialogue.
When you take the first route, when you attempt to create a world that you approve of in response to disapproval, you are undertaking a task too tall and wide for any mere mortal. It is impossible to bridle all the chaos that lashes you and destabilise all the order that binds you. When you attempt to do so you don’t only commit yourself to the impossible (and therefore guarantee that you are perpetually hypervigilant and exhausted) but you also create unnecessary conflicts with other people. To control all that you disapprove of (and disapproval itself demands some kind of corresponding action, it is a desire for control) you need to control other people. Other people have their own wills and values which are likely to conflict with yours. In other words, people are likely to wrestle with you when you attempt to control them, and others who are also stuck in approval-disapproval thinking are likely to attempt to control you in order to adjust their own worldly reality in keeping with their own system of approval and disapproval. We live in a world full of people in a perpetual state of approval-disapproval who are all battling to control one another and enforce different ideals on their external environments. Approval-disapproval thinking forces you into that unnecessary war. If you live your life that way for long enough, reality itself can start to seem oppressive and unfair. This can then cause you to fight even harder to control it, and the cycle maintains itself; the world grows dimmer and colder because you perceive it to be dim and cold.
The second alternative, moderating disapproval through an internal dialogue with yourself, is just as exhausting and disempowering as the first option, albeit less likely to cause interpersonal tension. What this involves is you convincing yourself that the thing you disapprove of will remedy itself on its own, or that you needn’t disapprove of it because it does meet your approval. In other words, you work to convince yourself of something that you know, deep down, not to be true, for the purposes of alleviating your discomfort. All of us, or at least the overwhelming majority, are plagued by some level of approval-disapproval thinking, and so we can understand how much time, energy and frustration we invest in lying to and arguing with ourselves. We can easily waste hours of our precious time and immeasurable effort maintaining these internal dialogues and the self-deception that results from them. This alternative is not much better than the first if it is better at all.
So, if approval-oriented thinking is unhelpful and potentially even pathological, how do we move away from it and toward acceptance-oriented thinking? There are multiple different paths we can take, but they all stem from what we have already done in this article; developing enough of an understanding of the perils of approval-disapproval thinking to motivate us to move toward acceptance thinking instead. Having done this earlier in this article, hopefully, somewhat successfully, we can now consider our next move.
One of the best ways to move oneself into acceptance style thinking is to practice mindfulness, which is both a form of meditation and a therapeutic practice; meditation is, effectively, what would be called a “relaxation” technique in modern modes of therapy. Mindfulness is more than just a relaxation technique, though, as it also acclimates the individual to a different mode of thinking. What it is, in essence, is the practice of distancing oneself from one’s emotions and ruminations while working to engage more with one’s present experience. It is not difficult to see how this promotes a state of acceptance; approval-disapproval thinking is essentially detachment from the present, and preoccupation with the past and the future (as represented by one’s emotions and ruminations). Mindfulness, however, is a subject worthy of its own article, and it will, accordingly, be the subject of our next article.
Instead, allow us to end this article by familiarising ourselves with affirmations. Affirmations are a simpler version of what are known in CBT as “new effective beliefs”. Like mindfulness, a proper explanation of new effective beliefs requires more attention than we can give it here. Defining the term, however, might help us to understand the purpose and utility of affirmations. New effective beliefs are rational beliefs that replace older irrational beliefs. A person who believes that the world is inherently unfair and malevolent might replace that belief with the belief that although the world isn’t perfect, it is a relatively safe place with positive opportunities on offer. This is a new effective belief not because it is optimistic, but because it is realistic. Were the old belief to be replaced with one that is optimistic but not realistic, such as “the world is perfect and no danger will ever befall me”, that belief would still be dysfunctional, maladaptive and the potentially crippling. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the person attempting to absorb that belief would believe it because it would be constantly contradicted by their personal observations and experiences. A new effective belief, in other words, should ideally be both pragmatic and warm; it should focus on positive possibilities while also acknowledging the situation’s limitations. The idea is to promote coping with failure and seeking out opportunity, not to deny the possibility of failure or to guarantee success. Just as a dysfunctional, maladaptive or otherwise irrational belief can be defined as such when it conflicts with reality, so too is a new effective belief defined by its consistency with reality and its usefulness while navigating that reality.
What does all this have to do with affirmations? Affirmations are essentially new effective beliefs that can be written down, recorded in audio form or vocalised aloud to weaken old irrational beliefs or bring new rational beliefs into existence. Affirmations are not a particularly quick or effective way of asserting new effective beliefs, but they do work, especially when referred to regularly or spoken aloud with conviction.
There are several steps I use when constructing a positive affirmation in response to an irrational belief. The first step is to acknowledge and record the part of the irrational belief that is true. The second is to acknowledge and record the utility, the real-world effect that holding that irrational belief has on you and your behaviour. The third is to acknowledge the part of the irrational belief that is false and to morph it into something more positive. I usually achieve this by appending a shorter more authoritative sentence onto the end of the affirmation.
Here's an example: Suppose that I hold the irrational belief that “everyone is going to abandon or hurt me”. This is a particularly common belief amongst people with certain life experiences (and understandably so). What part of this belief is true? The belief itself is true if its wording is weakened, meaning that the truth in it is that “some people will abandon and hurt me”. What is the real-world effect of holding this belief? It is almost certain that you become incredibly anxious and defensive when you begin to form relationships with others, in other words, the belief in question causes you constant anxiety and prevents you from starting or maintaining relationships with others. What is the negative and incorrect aspect of the belief? It is the use of the word “everyone”, which is a form of both black and white thinking and overgeneralizing. The claim that everyone will abandon or harm you is demonstrably false on multiple levels: you almost certainly have people in your life who haven’t abandoned or harmed you; you haven’t allowed yourself to get to know enough people to make an observation about “everyone”; your belief might be influencing you to behave in a way that causes more people to abandon you than would otherwise be the case (a self-fulfilling prophecy), etc. This is where a “for and against” list may be useful. The resulting affirmation would look something like this (the parts in parentheses are my commentary and not a part of the actual affirmation): “I don’t know what life will bring or how people will treat me (acknowledging some of the irrational belief) but if I live my life based upon fear I won’t ever get the opportunity to meet good people (acknowledging the negative effect of the irrational belief). I am worthy of love and belonging (this is essentially a negation of the meaning of the original irrational belief; instead of being denied love and belonging through rejection, you are deserving of them)”.
Is there an irrational belief that you could analyse and counter using this system? Once you have developed your affirmation, consider how you will record it. Whichever method you choose, be it a written affirmation or a recording of you reciting it aloud, it is best that the affirmation is presented with POWER. This can be achieved with a written affirmation by writing it in big bold letters, or a particularly enthralling colour. It can be achieved with an audio recording by speaking the affirmation with authority and conviction. Whether the affirmation is written down or recorded, it is beneficial to repeat it aloud, with authority, on a regular basis. Three times in the morning, three times in the afternoon and three times before bed is a good mode of operation. Don’t just utter it with your mouth, tongue and vocal cords, but project it from the depths of your spirit!
Why this works will be the subject of a future article, but for now, we hope that this article meets you all in good health and the best possible spirits.