Acceptance & emotional literacy

Emotional literacy is about knowing what you feel and how to express this. Acceptance is one of the key tools of emotional literacy – making a purposeful decision to acknowledge and accept what we cannot change about the world, about others, and about how we feel.

Becoming more aware of how you feel

People often think that depression is about being ‘too self-analytical’ or ‘navel-gazing’, but in fact depression usually cuts us off from our feelings. Sometimes we have just never learnt to pay attention to what we feel – indeed, British culture has long been known for taking pride in dismissing feelings, rather than ‘tuning in’ to them!

Learning to tune in to your feelings again (or for the first time) may take a bit of practice. It may also feel quite scary at first. If you have had traumatic experiences or have been severely depressed then it helps to have a support network in place. A counsellor is trained to help you get in touch with your feelings in a manageable way.

It may help to write things down. Keeping a diary is a very useful tool. Learning how to ‘rate’ the intensity of your feelings at different times and on different days is another useful tool. You can start to see changes and patterns, instead of feeling like you are uniformly low. Expand your feelings vocabulary, by thinking of a range of words to use for each type of feeling: contented, happy, satisfied, joyful, ecstatic, pleased, animated, chuffed… Practise using the precise word to describe your mood or feeling at any given time.

Once you are more practised at knowing what you feel you will be better placed to learn how to communicate your feelings and needs assertively (see ‘Communicating assertively’).


Acceptance is a powerful term as defined in a helpful therapeutic approach called Acceptance & Commitment Therapy – it is not about ‘resigning yourself’ to things, but is instead about an active and purposeful attitude of making space for all your feelings and internal experiences. It is the opposite of the avoidance and struggle which characterises our instinctive response to negative feelings like anxiety, anger, sadness and frustration.

Acceptance is the constructive approach towards things that we cannot control. These include objective events that are taking place whether we like them or not, past events and history that cannot be changed, other people’s behaviour, and most importantly our own ‘internal events’ – the spontaneous feelings, thoughts, memories and physical sensations that arise as part of our natural and immediate responses to life.

When we struggle against these things – through ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, bitterness, regret, ‘bottling up’ or dismissing our feelings and all the other many ways in which we try to resist and avoid negative feelings and events – we simply create more suffering for ourselves. ACT calls this ‘excessive suffering’ and suggests that we are better off focusing on supporting ourselves through the real suffering which can’t be avoided and letting go of the struggle which is causing us additional pain.

For more on this see Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap and The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression by Kirk Strosahl and Patricia Robinson.

Next: Communicating assertively


The happiness trap
Understanding self-harm
Finding out what works for you