The Secret to Mastering Acceptance
Don't try to change things you can't control—do this instead.
Posted August 17, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
In so many situations, especially those beyond my control, I’ve always found it difficult to accept things as they are. The last several months stuck indoors has tested my patience and sanity to the extreme. With a new baby in tow as well as an inescapable terror about the future, my inability to accept this new reality has resulted in nothing but perpetual anguish and rage. This is not healthy. I am not healthy.
I imagine there are many of us who feel this way, constantly vacillating between fear and fury—which is why, for all of our sakes, I turned to the professionals to show us how to better accept the things we simply can’t (or don’t want to) accept.
Free Your Mind(fulness)
From the numerous psychologists and mental health experts who responded to my call for help, one common theme emerged: Mindfulness.
Paul Harrison, a mindfulness expert and founder of TheDailyMediation.com, describes mindfulness as “the practice of being aware of the present moment and without judgement” and essentially the key to mastering acceptance or the ability “to be non-reactive to people, events and our own thoughts and feelings.”
Mindfulness sounds like a simple concept in theory but practicing it successfully is far from simple. When’s the last time I didn’t judge, criticize, or critique a situation that wasn’t to my liking? I can’t even remember.
So where do we start?
Right vs. Wrong is Wrong
A powerful step in our path toward mindful living, says Harrison, is to stop thinking in terms of “right” and “wrong.” This is challenging, especially if you’ve already set your mind on things happening or being a certain way.
So Harrison’s advice is to practice “calm observation”, which is to try to perceive things without reacting to them. Doing so “trains the mind to experience negative thoughts and feelings in a non-reactive way.”
That said, you shouldn’t hide or stifle your emotions. You can and should feel however you feel, but the key is to take a step back and observe “what is happening in the present moment, and not getting lost in thoughts or feelings,” he says.
After all, being judgmental is a natural human behavior, according to Terry B. McDougall, an author and career coach. It is when we feel threatened or unsafe that we feel most judgmental—it’s our “fight or flight” instincts kicking in. That’s why it’s important to “stop and ask yourself what belief is at the heart of your judgement,” she says. Look for valid evidence “to either confirm or invalidate your judgement” to prevent basing your feelings on unfounded assumptions.
Embracing an objective mindset can be transformative in all areas of your life, including relationships. In his therapy practice, Ned Presnall helps couples reframe right and wrong and see them instead as “competing preferences,” helping both partners recognize that their behaviors and feelings are equally valid.
“Despite what each person may think, their preferences are their preferences, and do not automatically equate with ‘right.’ People will argue and argue and argue about their different preferences, but both are typically within the realm of normal. Relationships work best when we compromise and take one another’s perspective.”
And, it’s worth emphasizing that “acceptance is not resignation,” says psychotherapist Michael Ceely, so you don’t have to like this reality—you only have to acknowledge that it is the current reality.
Work in Progress
As with most skills, mastering acceptance is not a one-time event nor should it be rushed. “Acceptance often requires ongoing work and conscious effort,” says Nicole Arzt, a marriage and family therapist. “We need to remind ourselves that it’s okay not to accept something right away—sometimes we just need to feel our anger or sadness or fear.” In fact, putting too much pressure on ourselves to come to terms with something immediately can backfire, since it may “intellectualize and invalidate our feelings, which in turn, makes it harder to accept the situation.”
To nurture the acceptance mindset, Alan Chu, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, recommends building a regular well-being practice which includes self-compassion mantras (focused on mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness), meditation, and expressions of gratitude.
And the reward for being more accepting? A happier life. Now isn’t this a challenge worth accepting?
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