by Suzanne Manser, PhD
It has always been challenging for me to fully convey what the word “acceptance” means, when it comes to accepting painful feelings or painful situations. “Acceptance” has a bad rap, no doubt about it. No one gets excited when I suggest we work on accepting pain. A few patients have flat-out refused.
The predominant assumption is that acceptance means that you settle for things as they are and never try to improve them. It is misunderstood as “giving in.”
Actually, acceptance has nothing to do with settling or giving in – they are unrelated concepts. Acceptance is simply about not fighting with the fact that this moment is happening. Take a tick to let that soak in if you need to. It took me years to really understand this.
This moment is happening. It just happened. Here comes another. If you are willing for this moment to be what it is, even if it’s unpleasant, then you won’t spend precious energy boxing shadows.
Acceptance is a willingness for this moment to be what it is. That’s all. Which is not to say that it’s easy. No one wants to have painful moments. However, if you are willing for this moment to be happening, there is a payoff. Because you are not uselessly fighting with the pain, you will have more energy and focus available to stay on track with whatever is important to you. If you can keep working toward your goals in hard moments, you are doing something useful with those moments – even though they are unpleasant. That’s better than the moment being entirely unpleasant and useless.
As I see it , acceptance comes down to these 3 truths:
1) We cannot change this moment that is happening right now.
2) Trying to not have emotional pain is counterproductive.
3) It is possible to live in line with your values and goals even while in pain.
If you are concerned that this still sounds like settling, let me offer this thought: you can’t change this moment, because it’s happening. But you can use your newfound energy and focus to change future moments, if that’s what is important to you. Feel anxious and ask for the raise. Feel heartbroken and go to your best friend’s dance performance. Feel abandoned and keep working on cultivating self-compassion. Focus on what is meaningful, not on the pain. This is how you will move forward toward wherever your values and goals are aiming you.
I’ve come up with an analogy to illustrate the concept of acceptance:
You turn down the cereal aisle of the grocery store. In front of you is a 2-year-old child, face down, spread eagle on the floor, in full tantrum mode.
Mom #1: hair flying all over the place, red-faced, sweaty, desperation in her eyes. She is trying to pick up the child with flailing limbs and/or reason with them. She is getting kicked and scratched and screamed at, and the child is still very much in the middle of the aisle.
Mom #2: hair slightly less askew, not sweaty. She is continuing with her cereal selection, clearly aware of her child, but also acknowledging that this child cannot be reasoned with at this moment, and that trying to pick them up will only stoke the tantrum fire. The child is still very much in the middle of the aisle, screaming.
(To be clear – I have no judgment about Mom #1. I have been her. I strive to be Mom #2 more consistently.)
Both moms have a tantrumming child. They can’t get rid of the moment – you can’t get rid of your child, and, if your child is 2, you likely can’t get rid of the tantrum – but one mom is having a slightly better experience. Or at least is achieving her goal of getting food in the cart.
To be Mom #2, you have to be very clear about your goal. Making progress toward your goal makes the hard work of acceptance worth it. I can tolerate this moment if I know I am doing something meaningful. I can tolerate the stares of the other shoppers because I have no food for dinner at home and I have to buy something. I can tolerate the stares of the other shoppers because I know that my child’s tantrum will be shorter if I don’t engage with it.
Without those kinds of goals firmly in mind, many parents will “give in” to the embarrassment of having a screaming child in a public place and will haul their kid out of the store. (For some, of course, taking the kid out of the store is what is in line with their valued goals.) Without a sense of what is important or meaningful in life, human nature is to give in to the squeakiest wheel. Giving in once will perhaps put you a bit behind in your goals. Doing it repeatedly will take you off course entirely.
How does this translate to “real life?”
It is always helpful to start with self-compassion, if you can. Pain of any variety or degree is no fun. No one is immune from it.
Second, identify what is meaningful to you in life. What do you want people to say about you behind your back? What are your goals? What do you value? Think about those things often, so they are easier to access when pain shows up.
Third, know the pattern. When painful emotions arise, our focus naturally shifts from our goals and values to the pain. The new, default goal becomes to make the pain go away. Be aware of this tendency to automatically focus on pain, and choose a different path. Put your focus where you want it to be, on what is meaningful to you.
That’s what I’ve got on acceptance. Although I understand the misconception, its bad rap is undeserved. Acceptance is not settling. In fact, it opens up the pathway to growth.