David Wilkinson

Banisher of fears, slayer of anxiety & developer of emotional resilience

Emotion regulation: When acceptance can cause problems

Emotion regulation: When acceptance can cause problems

Acceptance is part of the culture of mindfulness, aspects of which are often used successfully deal with conditions such as anxiety and depression. Certainly there is evidence to show that just accepting things as they are can be beneficial - but not always.

An interesting series of studies looking at the difference between eastern asian and western cultures in terms of their general ability to regulate their own emotions are coming up with some interesting and counter-intuitive results.

It has been found that people from more predominantly eastern cultures have greater difficulty with both labelling and regulating or changing their emotions than people from western cultures. An intriguing set of explanations has arisen for this state of affairs. I covered one of them in my last post. Briefly this explains this phenomenon in terms of the hedonic or the importance of the pleasure and happiness of the individual in the west and primacy of duty, loyalty and the group or family in the east. The principle here is that people in the west strive for individuals happiness and are therefore much more attuned recognising personal emotional states and fixing them if they are negative. Even the idea of a negative emotion is a western construction.
This explanation is growing in credibility at there moment but it is not the only explanation.

Another explanation I find fascinating is that acceptance is much more a feature of cultures in the east. The simple side of this explanation is that people from the east are much less likely to challenge their own feelings as acceptance rather than challenge of the status quo is a cultural norm. In the west the opposite is true. The 'we are never happy' syndrome as it has been called, means that westerners will readily challenge each other and therefore their own internal states as well. This suggests that change is much more likely to be driven from a challenge perspective rather than an acceptance perspective.

A deeper explanation is that it is not just a general acceptance that features so much here. In the east an acceptance of contradiction and in particular psychological contradiction is the norm. What I mean by this is that an individual who can accept psychological contradiction is much more likely to accept and therefore live with happiness and sadness. Confidence and anxiety. This comes from the eastern understanding of the duality of all things or Yin and Yang. There is in everything both light and dark, strength and weakness, good and bad etc. Therefore there is no negative emotion, rather there is negative and positive in every emotion.

In the west there is much more of a drive for certainty. One or the other. Westerners are much more likely ascribe a single attribute to something than allow a duality to exist. this is a negative or a positive emotion. The idea that happiness (or freedom) for example could be a negative is a rare position to take in the west.

The philosophy of duality is based on three principles:

1. The principle of contradiction - Two opposing positions can easily be true. You don't need to decide which one is right or true, they can be both true. Happiness can be both a positive and a negative at the same time.
2. The principle of change - The universe is in a constant state of flux and change. Change is happening all the time. Everything is changing from second to second. You just need to notice it.
3. The principle of holism - everything is connected and interrelated. Therefore acceptance = balance and vice versa.

In the west by contrast, there tends to be right or wrong, a drive for stability and certainty and linear thinking. In moments of contradiction there is a drive to resolve incongruities rather than accept them. Several decades of research have shown that Westerners experience cognitive dissonance or confusion and discomfort when their values, preferences, and actions are incongruent or not aligned.

Add to these the two perspectives on life that is the difference between individualism, the drive for pleasure and freedom on the one hand and selfless devotion to duty and the group or family on the other we find a culture (east) which accepts ambiguity, change and uncertainty and a culture (west) which tries to resolve it.

It would appear that in terms of the motivation to be more ready to recognise when things 'aren't right' for the individual and then have the drive to change things and to put them 'right', a lower tolerance for ambiguity helps! Somewhat counter intuitive.


Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stan- ford University Press.

Lewin, K. (1935). Dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper.

Peng, K., Ames, D., & Knowles, E. (2001). Culture, theory and human
inference: Perspectives from three traditions. In D. Matsumoto (Ed.), The handbook of culture and psychology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Peng, K., & Nisbett, R. (1999). Culture, dialectics, and reasoning about contradiction. American Psychologist, 54, 741-754.

Spencer-Rodgers, J., et al (2004) Dialectical Self-Esteem and East-West Differences in Psychological Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology bulletin. Vol. 30 No. 11, November 2004 1416-1432 DOI: 10.1177/0146167204264243

Thompson, M., Zanna, M., & Griffin, D. (1995). Let's not be indifferent about (attitudinal) ambivalence. In R. Petty & J. Krosnick (Eds.), Attitude strength: Antecedents and consequences (pp. 361-386). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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