Today the theme that keeps coming up in my office is radical acceptance. What is that? Well, it’s a powerful tool for being able to deal with life’s stresses, large and small. It is a way to free yourself from some of the struggle and burden of the things that make us unhappy. It is a way to cope with what may appear to be unacceptable bad circumstances. Have you ever wondered why some people are able to survive difficult or even traumatic circumstances and still live satisfying lives, while others seem to stay stuck in their suffering and pain? Radical acceptance seems to be the key.
Some things we just can’t change: the loss of a loved one, a disabling medical condition, losing your home in a fire, or a difficult childhood. The more we complain, the more we struggle, the more we suffer. Suffering is the result of pain plus non-acceptance. We have all known people who have just not been able to accept something difficult in their life. They may spend the rest of their lives being the victim, bitter, and unhappy. We also know people who, in spite of losses, tragedies, or injustices, manage to find a way to rise above it and carry on in an admirable manner . Some of our heroes are prime examples of this, big time. Think Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, or concentration camp survivors Victor Frankl or Simon Wiesenthal. Okay, I’m not holding anyone to that standard, just making a point about how high the bar can be set. Actually, closer to home for those of us in Tahoe, Jaycee Lee Dugard appears to be a good example, also. If you’ve read her book or seen her interviewed, she appears to be focusing not on the bad things that happened to her, but on going forward and fully appreciating the things she does have now. Acceptance should not be confused with condoning. In no way was it okay what happened to any of these people. Acceptance is not saying it was okay; it’s just finding a way to live with what has already happened.
Radical acceptance is not passivity. For example, a person who has the misfortune to have a disabling illness, or chronic pain, will have a better life if they can find a way to accept their situation, rather than be bitter about it. But they will still need to do everything they can to improve their health to the fullest possibility. They will not just roll over and give up. Examples that come to mind are Christopher Reeve or Michael J. Fox.
On a smaller, more day-to-day scale, are things like accepting those really irritating habits that our co-workers or spouses have. Boy, would we like to change them! Let me know how that works out (grin). We can complain, bang our heads against the wall, live in frustration, or – we could actually accept them the way they are. Radical? Perhaps.
As Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., a master at both using and teaching radical acceptance points out, there are an infinite number of painful things that can happen in your life, but there are really only four choices of what we can do when something in our life goes badly. 1. We can find a way to change the situation, if possible. 2. We can find a way to change how we feel about the problem, to turn a negative situation into a more positive one. 3. We can radically accept something that gives us pain, whether it’s something that has happened that we didn’t want to happen, or something that we wanted but did not get. 4. Or the other choice is that we can stay miserable.
If we can accept that things are the way they are, and people are the way they are, including ourselves, we will not waste energy complaining and wishing things were different. We will have more patience and more compassion, both for ourselves and for others. We can still work for constructive change in the world and in ourselves (let other people work on changing themselves!). Once again, it’s not passivity. It’s a very deliberate choice to find the best possible way to deal with the curve balls life tosses at us, and to live with strength and freedom. I’ll take that choice.
Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.