We’ve all been advised to “accept” some bad thing. You know: “it is what it is”, “embrace the suck”, and variations thereof. But what does it mean to accept something? How does acceptance come about? Acceptance seems to set up a desensitizing process, where the initial stage of an unpleasant reaction isn’t resisted but allowed to waft through one, allowing the reaction to ebb and flow out and not amplify into a full-blown attack of overwhelming emotion. A variation on attachment theory may shed some light on why acceptance may have desensitizing effects. If one is intentionally allowing the feeling, there is an internal counterweight that functions like an anchor, providing a calmer point of reference. Like a safe haven in the attachment literature, but instead of being Mama, it’s internal – a point of calm: “I’m here – go out, explore, but know I’m here and you can come back to me any time”. Yes, it can be scary and sad out there but I’m here.
In academic circles, “getting caught up” in thoughts is sometimes called “elaboration”. Elaboration is often considered a pathological process that can lead to intensification of depression (how much does life suck? Let me count the ways), anxiety (what awful things have happened or might happen?) and addictive cravings (oh, how good it’s going to be when I get my hands on some …). In some circumstances and for some people, elaboration can be harmful or at least unproductive.
But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Elaboration is a thought-generative process and generating thoughts can be a good thing. Whether trying to figure out what went wrong when a well-laid plan went astray, when a good intention backfired, or when receiving an unexpected bad work performance review - thinking back, reconstructing, examining past behavior, looking for possible lacuna that led to bad decisions, throwing out hypotheticals and - yes, a little obsession - can be useful. This type of elaboration can help us learn from our mistakes.
Elaboration also promotes creativity, planning, and problem-solving. Thinking about possible obstacles to goals is essential to goal achievement. So is thinking about what matters and what’s rewarding. Coming up with counterfactuals is part of strategic thinking. Considering how one’s own behavioral tendencies may undermine important values and goals, that’s good. Endless rumination over one’s weaknesses or bad behavior maybe not so good. It all depends….