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Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Self-Compassion

You may have noticed that “mindfulness” and “self-compassion” have become popular phrases on magazine covers and in self-help books. Unfortunately, it’s also true that people sometimes refer to mindfulness, self-compassion, and acceptance as if they are synonyms for the same idea.

These three words actually represent distinct concepts, although they are interconnected. In short, mindfulness is a practice that gives us a starting point for acceptance, and self-compassion is like an advanced level of acceptance that gives us the space for a new way of being in the world and within ourselves.

Here is a simple guide to understanding the differences between these terms, as well as the ways that mindfulness and acceptance are important building blocks for self-compassion.

Mindfulness: Starting with where you are

We have to begin with cultivating mindfulness, which is about noticing what is occurring right now in this moment. Mindful awareness will always be the necessary starting point. It makes sense that we cannot accept something or be compassionate about it when we have not yet become aware of it.

Being mindful means making contact right now, in the present moment, with our own experience. This can include our thoughts, feelings, urges, and physical sensations. Our societal conditioning has led us to always be focused on the future (what will happen next) or the past (what has already happened). This can distract us so much that we are barely aware of how we are reacting to circumstances right now.

What mindfulness teaches us is that our sensations and inner experience exist only in the present. When we practice mindfulness, we create a habit of noticing our own experience from moment to moment. For example, noticing the physical sensations and thoughts that accompany an emotional trigger can help us to understand and change how we react to that trigger.

Acceptance: Letting go of the urge to resist

Acceptance is about willingness. Accepting our experience means dropping the struggle. Often it is our internal resistance to negative experiences that makes them so painful for us. When we use our mindfulness practice to observe our thoughts, feelings, and sensations without automatically reacting, we can then choose to accept the reality of what is happening without needing to control or change it.

This does not mean that we have relinquished responsibility for the situation, or that we are resigned to allowing these circumstances to remain unchanged. Acceptance just means that we are willing to engage with the reality of what is actually happening rather than pretending things are different or attempting to force an outcome. It’s about accepting what is out of our control and taking responsibility for what is in our control. It is about staying present and willing to have all of the experiences that are occurring in the moment.

You are probably familiar with the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The most difficult part of that equation is knowing the difference between what we can and cannot change. The practice of mindful awareness and acceptance can help to get us to that point of discernment.

Mindfulness and acceptance are not passive

It would be easy to assume that mindfulness (noticing the present moment) and acceptance (letting go of resistance) require us to passively observe what is occurring without intervening in any way. However, these tools actually allow us to become active creators of our own circumstances.

Mindfulness is about observation, but it is also about action. Our values can guide our behavioral choices, helping us decide what actions to take in the moment. We refer to mindful and intentional actions as “values-based actions.” The human tendency is to revert to old coping behaviors that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. These behaviors tend to be based on what has happened to us in the past, rather than what is actually happening right now in the present moment. Mindfulness practice helps us to break this cycle by taking action intentionally based on our experience in the moment.

In the same way, acceptance is not a passive state, but an active way of opening ourselves to reality. We use the phrase “radical acceptance,” first coined by Marcia Linehan (founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy), to describe the complete and total acceptance of our experience with all its flaws and frustrations. When we are able to fully accept our experience in this way, we are able to learn how to replace unhelpful behaviors with values-based actions.

The next step beyond acceptance: Self-compassion

Self-compassion takes acceptance one step further—not only accepting our internal experiences as they are, but also sending them loving kindness.
Dr. Kristin Neff outlines three aspects of self-compassion on her website, self-compassion.org:

1. Self-kindness vs. self-judgment. Instead of ignoring experiences that are painful or uncomfortable, or criticizing ourselves for handling a situation badly, we can choose to hold those experiences gently and with warmth and compassion.

2. Common humanity vs. isolation. Self-compassion requires us to understand that there is nothing unique or special about suffering, which is an experienced shared by all humans. It can be freeing to remember that no matter what we experience, we are not alone in feeling that way.

3. Mindfulness vs. over-identification. We must be able to find a balance between acknowledging the particular sensations of our experience without being overwhelmed by what is happening.

Using mindfulness, acceptance, and self-compassion

As you can see, there is more to mindfulness and self-compassion than is commonly implied. But it’s good news that these tools are interconnected, because mindful awareness plus acceptance can lead you to a place where self-compassion is possible—creating a more sustainable way to be and act. Therapists who are trained in mindfulness can guide you through this growth and transformation process.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we offer individualized therapy that provides the tools you need to reach your goals and be more fulfilled. To learn more about how we can help, you can click here to book an appointment online. We have office locations in both San Francisco and Oakland.

Values Are The Journey

Values

Values represent and define the kind of person you want to be and what is important to you. One strategy for starting to clarify your values is to imagine witnessing your own funeral. Ask yourself if you were observing your own funeral, what would you want the people you love to say about you?

  • What would you want your life to be about?
  • What do you want to stand for?
  • In an ideal situation, what would you want most to hear about yourself?
  • What kind of partner do you want to be? (For example: being spontaneous, appreciative, affectionate, accepting, emotionally available, expressive, assertive)
  • What kind of friend? (For example: being loyal, consistent, reliable, genuine, supportive, honest)
  • What kind of coworker/boss/colleague? (For example: being fair, open, flexible, curious)
  • What kind of parent do you want to be? (For example: being nurturing, patient, accepting, supportive, loving, non-judgmental)
  • What kind of person do you want to be when you feel angry, with your partner, with your parent, with your friend? (compassionate, assertive, expressive, vulnerable, kind)
  • What kind of person do you want to be when you feel sad?
  • How do you want to be with yourself and with others when you feel inadequate or insecure?  (persistent, self-disciplined, compassionate, productive, kind)

Values are like a compass they guide your direction, but they are not the destination.

Values are freely chosen: This means that your 1values are not based on rules that you have about yourself, others, the world, relationships, or about how you “should be”, but rather they are freely chosen and represent your deeply held beliefs. They reflect the kind of person you want to be, what you want to stand for and what you find important in life.

Values are not emotions or thoughts. Feeling less anxious, feeling happier, or more confident is not a value. These are emotional states. Emotional states come and go just like the weather in the sky changes. Values are a way of being in the world. Thoughts and feelings come and go just like the whether changes, but values are consistent. They are not contingent on external circumstances and limitations.

Our values are not contingent on a particular outcome. For example if your value is to be assertive and you set a limit with a friend, your friend’s’ reaction to you setting a boundary may not feel good and might not be an ideal reaction, but you still took a step that brought you closer to being more assertive.

  • Thoughts, feelings, sensations are out of your control.
  • Other people’s responses are out of your control.
  • Your behaviors and your values are always under your control.

Taking deliberate steps that bring you closer to the kind of person you want to be is always under your control. This means staying connected in the present moment and in the process. Values are not a means to an end they are the end. They are not the destination they are the journey. Remembering that it’s not just the end goal, but the process of how you approach it. Did you reach your goal while staying consistent with your values and the kind of person you want to be?  If you were unable to reach your goal, were you able to stay consistent with the kind of person you want to be?

values and cognitive therapy, Oakland

Taking this path is not easy. Sometimes taking steps in a particular direction will bring up intense and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings about ourselves. These thoughts and feelings about ourselves will try to stop us from doing new behaviors and taking the steps that bring you towards your values.

Values motivate us towards behavioral change. The clearer we are about our values and what we want to stand for in our life, the better informed choices we are able to make in the present moment.

Values are not tangible and they are not achievable. Meaning you can never be 100% honest, authentic, loving, kind. You can only be taking steps that bring you closer or further away honesty. Every moment is a choice that brings us further away or closer to the kind of person we want to be. We will never be that person 100%, but sometimes we can be 95% closer, or 80% closer, or 75% closer. Values guide our present moment choices and guide us in the direction we want to go.

Values vs. goals: goals are tangible you can reach a goal, but values are a constant work in progress – every moment in life provides you with an opportunity to engage in a behavior that brings you closer to particular value or further away. Closer to the kind of person you want to be and the kind of relationship you want or further away from a particular direction.

Examples of Values: (values are active, how you want to be, like being loving, being kind)

  • Kind
  • Assertive
  • Spontaneous
  • Genuine
  • Loving
  • Patient
  • Humorous
  • Honest
  • Self-disciplined
  • Consistent
  • Reliable
  • Flexible
  • Sensual
  • Appreciative
  • Expressive
  • Vulnerable
  • Sensitive
  • Compassionate
  • Fair
  • Forgiving

 

Goals vs. Values

Goals are more specific, they are specific actions or steps that you can take to bring you closer to your value and the kind of person you want to be. Values motivate goals because although we don’t always have control of the outcome of a particular goal we always have control over whether we got closer or further away from our value.

Value: Being appreciative
Goal: Say thank you every time my partner makes dinner, give a compliment.
Value: Being assertive:

 

Goal: Say “no”, say “let me think about it” to any request, ask for help, express  discomfort.
Value: Being vulnerable:
Goal: Share a fear, share an emotion, call a fiend, ask for help.

 

At the Bay Area CBT Center,  we can help you clarify your values and lead a more fulfilling life. We offer individualized therapy that provides the tools you need to reach your goals and improve your well-being. To learn more about how we can help, you can click here to book an appointment online. We have office locations in both San Francisco and Oakland.