Don’t think about white bears

Social distancing and restrictive movement policies have disrupted traditional educational practices. Teachers with years of experience are now having to rethink how to approach day-to-day tasks that they had become accustomed to performing with confidence and ease. Online learning, and the continuing of education despite everything else, have become a kind of panacea for parents. Yet, the impact that this panacea is having on teachers is only yet to be comprehended. 

Teachers need to practise self-care too

Included in the pressure placed on teachers is the call to focus on self-care and wellness, with many of us wondering how to fit in a regular exercise routine and time in nature to an already-overburdened schedule. That being said, self-care for teachers is more important than ever at the moment, and ultimately, we are all responsible for the management of our own stress. It might help to know that self-care is far more than taking a walk around the block after work each day, although that does help, of course. Radical acceptance is a practice that teachers could adopt on a daily basis to reduce stress levels, despite the increased demand placed on them. 

What is radical acceptance?

Radical acceptance can be defined as the ability to accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, which in turn reduces the suffering that is caused by them. The concept is based on the idea that fighting against reality is a greater cause of suffering than the situation itself. In simple terms:

  • pain + non-acceptance = suffering

A study by social psychologist, Daniel Wegner, on the Paradoxical effects of thought suppression illustrates the idea of radical acceptance. Wegner asked participants to verbalise what they were thinking for five minutes, while trying NOT to think about white bears. If a white bear came to mind, the participants were required to ring a bell. Despite the explicit instructions to avoid it, the participants thought of a white bear, on average, more than once per minute. 

Wegner then asked the participants to perform the same exercise, but to intentionally think of a white bear. At this point, this group of participants thought of a white bear even more often than a different group of participants, who had been told from the beginning to think of white bears. Wegner concluded that suppressing the thought for the first five minutes of the experiment caused it to rebound into the minds of this group even more prominently later on and that fighting against something makes it worse. It is on this premise that radical acceptance is based. 

When is radical acceptance useful?

It is important at this point to note what radical acceptance is NOT. Radical acceptance should not be practised in situations that require change that is within our control. An abusive relationship, for example, does not require radical acceptance. An unsafe work environment does not require radical acceptance. 

Radical acceptance is useful in situations where we have little control. For example: You are driving to an important meeting and you are stuck in rush hour traffic. You can choose to dwell on your frustration, becoming angry at yourself and the situation – or you can radically accept the situation, acknowledge that it is annoying, and then use the time to do something else, such as listen to your favorite song. 

Making use of this concept could assist teachers in our new roles, as we have very little control over the increased demands placed on us. We have students who need to be taught, exams that must be marked, and lessons that must be prepared. Here, radical acceptance of things might help. 

How to apply radical acceptance

So how is it done, exactly? One of the ways you could practise radical acceptance is through reflective thought. For those of you who like steps, here are a few from Marsha Linehan on HopeWay that you could try the next time you find yourself in a distressing situation: 

  1. Notice that you are doubting or fighting reality (e.g. ‘it shouldn’t be this way’).
  2. Accept that the unpleasant situation is the reality and that it cannot be changed (e.g ‘this is what happened’).
  3. Remind yourself that there are causes/reasons for the reality happening in the first place ( e.g. ‘this is how things happened or came to be’). 
  4. Identify how you would behave if you did accept the facts and then engage in those behaviors as if you have already accepted the facts. 
  5. Allow yourself to feel the sadness, disappointment, or anger that arises. 
  6. Acknowledge that life is still worth living, even when there is pain. 

Another way to practise radical acceptance is through mindfulness or meditation. Try the following exercise (found here, along with other helpful mindfulness techniques and resources), perhaps while you’re stuck in traffic!: 

Imagine that you’re sitting by the bank of a river. The water is flowing downstream. You can hear the bubbling water, and smell the fresh grass and flowers on the bank. Occasionally, leaves fall into the river and are swept downstream and out of view. You watch the leaves falling and travelling, without judgement. When the next leaf falls, imagine placing your crisis situation on the leaf. It can be a person, a feeling, or an event. Just make it small and place it on the leaf. Watch it travel downstream and out of view, without judgement.

Accepting reality is key

There is so little at the moment that we can control, and with the increased demand on us as educators, it is natural that many of us are taking strain. Reality is painful, especially at the moment. The idea of accepting it might seem terrifying. However, when you open yourself up to accepting the present reality, with no judgments, you remove some of the suffering and open yourself up to seeing new possibilities. 

About the author:
Lauren Brown is the Head of the Student Development Centre at a Helderberg school in the Western Cape. She is an Educational Psychologist and Cognitive Development Specialist.

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