The Sport Psychology Blog
Acceptance: The active and aware embrace of private events that are occasioned by our history, without unnecessary attempts to change their frequency or form, especially when doing so causes psychological harm"
One of the most powerful tendencies of human behaviour is the want to avoid and get away from unwanted and unwelcome thoughts and feelings. This takes up so much of our mental energy. The act of trying to avoid being uncomfortable.
Now being uncomfortable physically is generally accepted as a means to grow, adapt and get stronger. People who want to get fit know that it's going to require a bit of a pain or discomfort. But that's not so accepted in the mental space. There is a belief that we should be thinking and feeling pretty good, ALL of the time, so we can perform well in sport. Now don't get me wrong, mood disorders exist and are a real problem and having a low mood for extended periods of the time can signal that it's time to get some help. But, in elite sport, feeling a bit stressed, anxious, pressured and uncomfortable is reasonably normal. These situations will still often make us want to AVOID this current state of mind. We may try and find ways to make ourselves feel better, in the moment. That's when it can become a bit of a problem.
We all do it from time to time, we analyse why "this" is happening to us, we complain about how it feels, we blame others for "making" us feel a certain way. We are focused on trying to "fix" our inner state of mind. And this problem solving nature of the brain is perfectly normal, it works for us in the outside world right? When there's a problem we need to solve, we work hard at coming up with solutions and try and solve it.
But...you will never be able to rid yourself completely of uncomfortable feelings in sport. Inner peace and tranquility doesn't really exist, not in that sense. Our brain reacts in a certain way due to a genetic influence and a lifetime of conditioning. That is a reality. It's not your fault.
The good news is that acceptance doesn't mean we are giving up. The key is that we can just be a little bit more compassionate toward ourselves and how we feel in this moment. It's OK. We can go toward these natural feelings. How we look at our situation and how much room we give these unwelcome feelings the chance to sit with us... can change our whole perspective.
Let's take a look at some of the classic culprits, say: embarrassment. fear, and self doubts. Those things can make us uncomfortable, but with each one of them, it is actually possible to feel them and yet STILL go out and perform your best (or just DO those things your don't really want to do, like speak in public, take a test, play a solo, or compete in sports).
If you are willing to accept and make room for the thoughts and emotions that don't feel good, you not only take away some of their power, but you become more powerful. By facing them and feeling them, you can become more resilient, more focused on what you want to achieve, and more conscious of what you can / can't control (and more compassionate toward yourself!!).
Not only that, but being uncomfortable can be a trigger for you to realise that your body is ready to perform. Even professionals get nervous. The difference is instead of saying, "oh, no", they say "let's go". The energy and adrenaline that can come from being uncomfortable can actually be a sign that you are "ready to go"!
Sounds easy right? Well in some respects it can be effective quite quickly! A study that involved just informing people about a willingness approach to dealing with cravings (people who had addictions to food or cigarettes) found that willingness increased their ability to go forward in what they were doing without feeling like they needed to satisfy the urge as often, they just sat with it and carried on and actually did better!
In other respects, it is very hard. It is often hard to accept that we have to "accept" certain emotions. So we are likely to engage in avoidance behaviours very often (yes that's ALL of us). Throughout the day you will chose actions that help you avoid discomfort, that's natural. When problems occur, however, it is when this avoidance gets in the way of us achieving what we want to achieve - When the tendency to want to control your internal state gets in the way of you actually performing well!
Just think, if you're spending all your energy trying to make yourself "feel good" you're actually putting all this mental energy into something that:
A: You can't fully control anyway
B: Is not what you should be focusing on! You're focused on yourself and not on the task! You're meant to be performing!
Quick Tip: if you find yourself focusing too much on "How you are feeling" then notice and accept the thoughts and feelings that exist, right now, and switch your focus to "what you are doing" bringing those gremlins along with you for the ride.