The first time someone posed the idea of "acceptance" to me, I was chatting with my first therapist. We were discussing my relationship with my dad (cliche, I know), and she suggested I "accept" that I might never have with him the relationship I desired. I was appalled.
Excuse me? You're my therapist. Aren't you supposed to have the answers to how I can fix this? What a bogus profession. Therapy sucks.
As I got older, I began to understand why desiring something else — something that was, for the most part, out of my control — was causing me more pain than accepting that, at least for now, this was the way it was going to be. Consider a common saying in Buddhist philosophy: Suffering = pain x resistance. Essentially, accepting the "pain" (or reality, or experience, or relationship) causes less suffering than struggling vainly against it.
Here's the thing about acceptance. In many cases, we have a choice. We can either accept or reject, and much of the time rejecting doesn't change our reality, it just causes pain.
We talk a lot about acceptance in therapy, but we don't always unpack the word. Here are five things to know about acceptance that you might not have considered:
1. Acceptance does not mean liking, wanting, choosing, or supporting.
No one is suggesting you like, want, or support whatever it is that you're accepting (in the case of the formula, the "pain"). But, by struggling against the pain — by resisting and rejecting it — we create undue suffering. It doesn't mean that you've chosen or endorse what you're accepting. It doesn't mean you like your anxiety, want your chronic pain, would choose your body, or support an injustice that's happened to you or someone else.
Rather, you're choosing to allow it to be there when you can't change it in that moment. To make space for it. To give yourself permission to be as you are, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you've experienced without creating unproductive shame or anxiety. The pain might still be there, but some of the suffering will be alleviated.
2. Acceptance is an active process. It must be practiced.
Remember that "accept" is a verb. It's an active process, one that must be practiced consciously. It's rare that we one day choose to accept our emotional or physical pain, our bodies, our difficult relationships, or our pasts, and never think about it again.
It can require effort at times (or most of the time, at least initially). It can be frustrating at times. But, like creating a clearing in a grass field by walking the same path many times, every time you practice acceptance toward something, you create and strengthen neural pathways in your brain, facilitating ease in the future.
Practice compassion to yourself alongside acceptance. Practice acceptance of the challenges you're having practicing acceptance! It's natural to vacillate back and forth between feelings of acceptance and feelings of resistance. Make space for the spectrum of experience, and notice your internal critic quieten.
3. Acceptance doesn't mean that you can't work on changing things.
Many people believe that acceptance is a sign of apathy. Passivity. Giving up. Relinquishing agency. However, this doesn't have to be the case. Acceptance can be practiced alongside action, as is the basis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Practicing acceptance does not necessarily mean you won't be able to make a change. You can accept your body and still change it, accept your emotions and acknowledge their impermanence, and accept your behavior one day when you might change it tomorrow ... which brings me to my next point:
4. Acceptance doesn't mean you're accepting is going to be that way forever.
A decade later, the relationship I now have with my dad is galaxies different from what it used to be. I wouldn't say that's due entirely to acceptance, but it does show that acceptance doesn't always mean whatever you're accepting will be that way forever.
Try to focus your acceptance on the present, alongside an open and realistic gaze at the future. Focusing too much on the present can be counterproductive, as a large part of acceptance involves letting go of the desire that things will change — detaching from hope that, in some cases, creates suffering.
But sometimes imagining practicing acceptance forever can seem daunting, overwhelming, or impossible, so try to find that sweet spot where you're accepting the current moment, but not under the pretense that things will change in the future.
5. We can practice acceptance toward our experience, people, appearance, emotions, ideas, and more.
Acceptance can be practiced in all areas of your life: You can exercise it toward your current experience or reality, others' beliefs or ideas, your appearance, your emotions, your health, your past, your thoughts, or other individuals — to name a few examples.
Again, this doesn't mean you necessarily endorse whatever it is that you're accepting in these realms; rather, you recognize that you can't change the current nature of this exact moment, and accepting manages anxiety and helps calm.
I encourage you to share how acceptance has benefited your life in the past, areas it can be practiced that we don't always think of, and strategies you find helpful for practicing it. Carl Jung said "What [we] resist, persists." So, if the alternative to accepting is resisting, thereby potentially prolonging our pain and creating suffering. What do you choose?
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