“You are here and yet you dream
Of being there; of being where you think the good life has begun”
-The Wailin’ Jennys
“This can’t be.” “This is unacceptable.” “Something has to change.” “Someone has to do something.”
Raise your hand if you’ve said something like this out loud or in your head in the last few days. It could be about a personal situation in your life. Maybe you’re frustrated and discouraged by all the effort you’re putting in to assert boundaries with a family member only to have those boundaries stomped on and disrespected time and time again. Or you’re sick and tired of the anxiety that keeps waking you up at four in the morning. You’d do anything to rid yourself of your present experience.
Maybe it’s about the ongoing state of oppression and violence in our world that seems to be intensifying every day. You feel simultaneously helpless and like you can’t sit still. The feeling is dizzying, overwhelming, dipping in and out of despair.
Wouldn’t accepting how bad things are just lead us further into despair?
I love this question, because it brings up important nuances of what acceptance is and isn’t. Let’s clear up some misconceptions, shall we?
Acceptance is not the same as agreement
Acceptance does not mean blindly going along with the status quo. It does not mean tolerating violence, oppression, or cruelty. In fact, it actually means seeing things even more clearly for what they are.
When we lean into acceptance, we are not turning away from our own suffering or the suffering of others. Instead, we’re holding it with more awareness, more acuity. We can actually accept something in that it is what is happening and adamantly not agree with it at the same time.
Acceptance isn’t resignation
Acceptance is not the same as throwing up our hands or shrugging our shoulders in hopelessness. It does not mean making excuses for harmful behavior with a “that’s just the way it is” statement.
Acceptance doesn’t make excuses, it does not rationalize or sugarcoat. It does not mean passivity, although it almost always means pausing before we respond.
The humanist psychologist Carl Rogers sums it up in a well-known quote in the therapy world: “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
Acceptance may not make you feel better
In fact, you might actually feel worse at first. So many of us are taught to push away, disregard, avoid pain at all costs. Acceptance posits a different solution to what to do with the “problem” of pain: radically turn toward it.
The author and psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem talks about “clean” versus “dirty” pain. Both forms of pain hurt, but in different ways. With dirty pain, we refuse to fully see what is happening within ourselves and utilize strategies of avoidance and denial. This can feel or look like blaming, urgent attempts to control ourselves or others, or addictive behaviors.
On the other hand, clean pain invites us to fully turn toward and experience the pain and discomfort that is already there. In his book “The Quaking of America,’ Menakem writes: “it’s the pain you experience when you know exactly what you need to say or do; when you really, really don’t want to say or do it; and when you do it anyway. It’s also the pain you experience when you have no idea what to do; when you’re scared or worried about what might happen; when you step forward into the unknown anyway, with honesty and vulnerability.
Acceptance is having radical self compassion
We are best able to hold and accept all of the potential confusion, pain, even chaos, of what’s coming up for us in the present moment if we do some from a place of compassion. Self-compassion offers us the same care we might extend to a beloved friend, child or pet.
Self-compassion involves not just being kind to ourselves, but also a willingness to notice and be with whatever is arising within us. It also taps into the collective, reminding us of our common humanity. We are not alone in our pain, and we are not alone in our difficulty accepting it!
Acceptance is embracing our imperfections
Perfectionist parts of us are often drivers of non-acceptance. The bar is always moving for those wounded parts of us who never feel good enough. Giving ourselves a gentle reminder that perfection is not attainable (at least not in the sense of our critical, exacting parts) can help bring us closer to accepting and even embracing all of our flaws and missteps and points of confusion.
Acceptance is building our tolerance for the full range of our feelings
Non-acceptance and “hot” emotions like anxiety and anger go hand in hand. These emotions can be useful to a point, letting us know that something is “off” or that something might indeed need to change in our lives or in the greater world.
However, when we try to push away or get rid of the hot emotions, they tend to push back even hotter. Acceptance means working with the emotions – getting curious about how they are showing up in our bodies and minds without an agenda to change them in any way.
Having trouble accepting something? Start there! Get curious about the part of you that pushes back, that wants to use force to change something. Explore what’s driving the parts of your that would rather turn away.
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