Learning to Observe and Accept Your Emotions

Man with head in hands, woman behind

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This emotional acceptance exercise is one way to help you learn to be more aware and accepting of your emotions. Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and other disorders that involve intense emotional experiences have a tendency to reject their emotions as bad or wrong. Unfortunately, this can lead to some very dangerous behaviors, such as deliberate self-harm.

How can you learn to be more accepting of emotions? This exercise teaches you to see your emotion from a little bit of a distance. This is different than dissociation (which involves being completely cut off from your emotions) or emotional suppression.

Emotional acceptance promotes mindfulness, or the ability to see the emotion for what it is without judging it or attempting to get rid of it.

The exercise is adapted from a workbook developed by Dr. Steven Hayes at the University of Nevada at Reno called “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life.” The workbook is an excellent introduction to a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which has been shown to effectively treat a variety of psychological disorders. The workbook is well worth a read if you are interested in learning more about accepting your 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 strong enough for you to 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.

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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.

1 Source
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  1. Chapman A, Dixon-Gordon K, Walters K. Borderline personality features moderate emotion reactivity and emotion regulation in response to a fear stressorJ Exp Psychopathol. 2013;4(5):451-470. doi:10.5127/jep.031612

Additional Reading

By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD
 Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University.