Step 2 to Freedom

Mistake 2:  Thinking “It could have been different”

The problem with this way of thinking is its futility. Things are not different. What happened did happen (and it can’t be changed). The way you are feeling is the way you are feeling (and that can change).

Going back over and over, wishing that things could be different from the way they are  causes an endless cycle of rumination, and keeps you from making positive changes.

> You can find yourself becoming depressed.

> Your energy levels drop.

> You can even become ill with upper respiratory problems, weight gain, a sallow complexion, high blood pressure and vague stomach and head distresses.

Instead, try accepting the situation. Just as you learned that you can accept yourself in your completeness, you can also accept circumstances. It doesn’t mean you have to like them, just see them for what they are.

Looking at difficult circumstances and difficult people with curiosity and acceptance can be an important step in moving forward. The fact that circumstances are not what we would have chosen doesn’t need to stop us from being happy and from accepting what is real. And being aware of what is real opens us to a world of possibilities.

When we interact with someone we do not like, our tendency is to judge that person. Accepting them, and what they did, does not necessarily mean that we approve of their behavior, or that we like their personality. It means that we see them as they are, with empathy or curiosity rather than judgment, and do not struggle to control them or change them. We insist on maintaining a positive regard for the person, which often leads to a natural change on their part.

Action step: an exercise in accepting emotions

Emotional Acceptance Exercise – Observing Your Emotions

This exercise can be done when you are having an emotion that is uncomfortable. If you are just starting to practice this exercise, it is best to choose an emotion that is not too intense. Pick a time when you are having an emotion that is strong enough that you recognize you are having it, but not so strong that you are feeling overwhelmed by it. After you get some practice with this exercise, you may want to try it with stronger emotions.

Step One: Identify the Emotion

The first step is to identify the emotion you are having. If you are having more than one emotion, just pick one (you can go back and do this exercise with the other emotions later if you want to). If you are having trouble identifying the emotion, sit for a moment and pay attention to your physical sensations and thoughts. See if you can give an emotion you are having a name (e.g., sadness, anger, shame).

Once you have a name for the emotion, write it down on a slip of paper.

Step Two: Getting Some Space

Now that you have identified the emotion, close your eyes (if that feels safe to do) and imagine putting that emotion five feet in front of you. Imagine that for just a few minutes you are going to put it outside of yourself so that you can look at it. Later on you will take it back, but for now you are going to allow yourself just a bit of distance so that you can observe the emotion.

Step Three: Give the Emotion a Form

Now that the emotion is out in front of you, close your eyes and answer the following questions: If your emotion had a size, what size would it be? If your emotion had a shape, what shape would it be? If your emotion had a color, what color would it be?

Once you’ve answered these questions, imagine the emotion out in front of you with the size, shape and color you gave it. Just watch it for a few moments and recognize it for what it is. When you are ready, you can let the emotion return to its original place inside you.

After the Exercise: Reflect

Once you’ve completed this exercise, just take a moment to reflect on what you noticed about your experience. Did you notice any change in the emotion when you got a little distance from it? What about changes in your reactions to the emotion? What size, shape, and color did you give the emotion? Did the emotion feel different in some way once the exercise was finished?

Practice this exercise once a day for a month. It won’t take much time out of your day, so it’s not a huge investment. After a month, see if you notice any changes in how you relate to your emotions. This exercise may seem a little strange at first, but many people notice that it helps them start to think differently about, and be more accepting of, their emotions.


Hayes SC. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. 1st ed. New Harbinger Publications, 2005.

In time you will discover that when you stop striving to change what can’t be changed, and you live with acceptance, you are open to more love, vibrancy and connection with others.

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