I get many questions about this concept. It’s quite tricky and it address the paradoxical nature of anxiety in general, and of unwanted intrusive thoughts in particular.
First, I strongly recommend that you read pages 118 -120 in our book, “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts“. That book section has additional information on how to understand this difficult concept.
What does it mean to “accept and allow” intrusive thoughts? It certainly doesn’t mean that you want to hope they come, and it doesn’t mean that you should actively try to trigger them (unless, of course, you are practicing in the ways that are suggested in Chapter 8 of “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.”). Some have asked if accepting and allowing means that they should try to have the the thought a second time after labelling it.
These are reasonable questions, and initial confusion is often the rule and not the exception. Accept and allow is really more of an attitude than a particular technique or self-help step. Accept and allow refers to the goal of changing your attitude towards these thoughts, so that they lose their sting and start to feel more like ordinary thoughts. Ordinary thoughts, remember, get lost in the normal stream of consciousness, and are soon forgotten.
Accept and allow doesn’t tell you specifically what you should do, or what you shouldn’t. Accept and allow speaks to an accepting attitude–not because you enjoy having those thoughts–but because that is the approach that will lead to recovery in the most efficient and painless manner. Remember that effort works backwards, and so acceptance reduces the effort you use to fight the thoughts. And–as I have been stressing in every one of these newsletters–fighting and resisting the thoughts is the active ingredient in keeping them stuck.
Here are a couple of pointers to know when you are moving towards accept and allow. First, you are aiming to get to the point where you are never surprised or blindsided when you get an intrusive thought. Not that you like having them, but you are continually aware of the possibility that a thought can intrude. Second, you are working towards the point where you aren’t angry or disappointed with yourself when the thought appears. After all, it’s automatic!
So–and here is the hard part–reaching the attitude of accepting and allowing means that you aren’t any more upset when a thought occurs as when it doesn’t. Just like you aren’t any more upset about thinking you want chicken cacciatore for dinner, as opposed to eggplant parmesan (unless, of course, you are a vegetarian!).
Don’t expect this to happen soon–it is a goal to reach towards. You have already wired your brain to get upset in reaction to certain thoughts. These associations can be quite persistent, and so you need to understand that fact.
Another way of thinking about accept and allow is to understand that it is a process. It goes on towards a goal. You may never get there 100%, but the journey can result in helpful insights.
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP