“Well I’ll just have to accept it.”
When something doesn’t go the way you hoped it would, do you ever say this?
Or how often do we say this about children?
“She need to accept she can’t always get what she wants.” (When she wants something she can’t have.)
“He needs to learn to accept that people are like that.” (When someone lets him down.)
“She needs to accept the hard lessons of life.” (When she fails an exam.)
It all sounds reasonable doesn’t it?
Yet, in each of those examples, and in thousands of others that I could give you, the result is not peaceful, but stressful. There is no compassion in these responses, and the outcome not an expression of delight, but suppression feelings of pain, it is not acceptance but resignation.
So often, people think acceptance means resigning yourself to your lot, no matter how bad that lot might be. Even the Oxford dictionary is in on the act. It defines acceptance as: Willingness to tolerate a difficult situation: a mood of resigned acceptance.
There is one part of this definition that I agree with, and I’ll get to that later.
Language lets us communicate, helps us know nuances of how another person thinks and feels. It helps us create – as well as literature, many of our scientific creations are dependent on language. Language makes learning complex tasks easier. Cats can’t drive cars, and while their lack of opposable thumbs is partly why, so too is their lack of complex language needed to pass on instructions!
Yet, language has limitations. We use the same word to mean different things. So acceptance can mean accepting a thing (The Oxford dictionary’s example is acceptance of bribes!) It can also mean agreeing with a belief or being received as suitable – as in gay marriage is now considered acceptable by law in the USA, the UK and Ireland.
And then, there’s another meaning, which is the meaning I’m focusing on. This form of acceptance is an emotional state rather than a concept about agreement or approval.
This kind of acceptance feels peaceful and joyful. It might also contain other emotions, but peace and love penetrates them.
True acceptance never “has” to happen, and we don’t “have to learn” anything to feel it. Nor do we need to teach our children to suppress their innate nature in pursuit of it. On the contrary, we would be better off observing small children and learning from them how to reconnect with our own innate love and acceptance that we’ve squashed and buried in the name of politeness or in a search for approval.
You cannot force anyone, even yourself, to feel acceptance, and I’m not convinced you can “choose” it. It chooses you (perhaps.) Or, more simply, you reach it through allowing your darker feelings: your non-acceptance, your anger, sadness, frustration or shame. Most of us would rather not feel those emotions or witness others feeling them, so we try to skip to acceptance by telling ourselves and other people that we just have to accept life as it is.
If it feels forced, it’s resignation, not acceptance.Tweet
Accepting that something has happened.
Of course, when something we don’t like happens, there’s no benefit in pretending it hasn’t. However, accepting that something has occurred it not the same as feeling the emotion of acceptance about it. I’d say better words to use might be acknowledgment or recognition. For instance, you might acknowledge you’ve lost your job and that you feel anxious. In this case, telling yourself you shouldn’t feel anxious, but just accept the situation will not help you one bit. Whereas, allowing (or accepting) your feelings about what has happened is the beginning of freedom. It definitely does not feel like “resigned acceptance!”
How can we tell the difference between acceptance and resignation?
Resignation comes with thoughts like, “I’ll just have to put up with it, make the best of it, make do.” It feels forced upon us. We feel stuck with our circumstances, and powerless to change them. Sometimes, we don’t even try, and when opportunities for change occur, we miss them.
Acceptance sometimes comes without thoughts, and the thoughts we do have might include things like, “Everything’s okay.”
Nothing becomes real till experienced – even a proverb is no proverb until your life has illustrated it. ~ John KeatsTweet
The state of acceptance cannot be known by reading about it. To know it, you need to experience it. And you will have experienced it at times, so start there. Think of a time when you felt deeply accepting – for instance when you got an A at school, when you married or had a new baby, or any other situation for which you felt deep acceptance.
Don’t try to hold onto that feeling – that time is past and trying to hold onto the past simply keeps us stuck feeling non-acceptance of what is here now. Instead, from now on, do your best to start noticing when you do feel real acceptance. We’re more accustomed to feeling acceptance when “good” things happen – which is shorthand for “when things work out the way we want them to!” But we can also feel acceptance when things don’t go the way we want. Pay attention to times you feel acceptance, whether you’d label those times “good” or “bad.” Noticing in this way has far more power than most of us imagine.
Accepting the suffering of others
If you are anything like me, you find it easier to accept that it’s okay when things don’t work out for yourself than when someone else is suffering. Mothers are especially prone to this. We see our children suffer and we think we have to fix it. However, our attempts at fixing things for someone else can lead them to feel inadequate. Years ago, a friend and her toddler came to visit me in an apartment that was up several flights of stairs. My friend had picked up her toddler, to loud protests of, “Do it myself!” The little girl was so irate that when her mother set her down she headed back downstairs so that she could: “Do it myself!”
How to feel true acceptance in difficult times
Whether we find it hard to accept when someone else is suffering, or we think we have to accept something, it’s worth bearing in mind these words from Michael J. Fox ~ Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it.
I’ve found that when I try to accept something, I get knotted up in tension and resistance. Instead, what works is to allow myself to find something I can accept – for example, when I felt grief after my father’s death, at first I resisted the feelings, thinking I should be able to cope, reasoning that he was an old man and had been ill for years.
When I noticed these subtle attempts to force myself into acceptance, I instead allowed the waves of deep sadness I felt.
I also felt a deep desire to honour my father by speaking at his funeral. In the past, I had always felt nervous of speaking in public, fearing that I’d speak too fast, too quietly, stumble over the words – or just somehow “look stupid.” Every time I practised the eulogy, I broke into tears at some point. After a few attempts, I realised that if I broke down halfway through, the congregation would understand. I also had an unexplainable sense that somehow my father would help me do it. But just in case, my husband had a copy of the eulogy and was ready to take over if need be.
As the time came for me to stand up, I realised I was unconsciously repeating to myself, “You can do it. You can do it.”
By accepting that I didn’t need to do it perfectly, my mind was free to form a back-up plan and to support me instead of coming up with fears about mistakes. I got through the eulogy with only one small wobble of my voice.
In accepting we don’t need to do things perfectly, our minds are free to support us.Tweet
True acceptance feels loving even in difficult circumstances. We can comfort ourselves, have compassion for our emotions or for other people. We don’t try to make anyone feel differently to how they are – and sometimes our feelings of acceptance helps others to accept themselves too. But not always, so it’s not a good idea to try to fake acceptance to “make” someone else feel better! Nor is it a good idea to try to feign acceptance to somehow make a situation change. Many of us indulge in the magical thinking of: I’ll pretend I don’t really care whether I get the job/boyfriend/girlfriend/prize or not, and then it might happen.
For years I wanted acceptance to mean I felt happy all the time, and I couldn’t see the contradiction in wanting to get rid of “negative” feelings whilst trying to accept myself. Yet the more I allow myself to feel sadness, anger or fear, the less often and less intensely I feel them.
Willingness and Awareness
And that part of the Oxford dictionary’s definition that I agree with? Willingness. While we can’t force ourselves into acceptance, we can be willing to feel it, we can be willing to open to a new way of seeing – and a little willingness goes a very long way.
The article, Acceptance is not Resignation quotes Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach who says:
What accepts is awareness. The truth of what you are is what accepts. The most you can do is intend to accept. It is a willingness that aligns you with your awareness. The self can’t do it; the self is designed to react.
We’re so used to hearing, reading and believing that we should control our emotions that it can be hard to trust that simply by being aware and allowing them to come and go we will feel freer and less emotionally reactive. But that’s my experience and the experience of many others.
If we feel controlled by our emotions it seems logical that controlling them would stop that, but instead it locks us into a fight. When we allow them to come and go, it’s like making friends with them. Think about what would happen if you tried to get rid of your friends when they came to visit, or to hang onto them when they wanted to leave – every visit would be a fight, and you might soon have no friends at all.
How to develop self acceptance
I was reading a book recently, enjoying some aspects of it, and not others. I was feeling very torn about how to review this book, given that those less enjoyable aspects. I felt tense. Then I noticed my thoughts running along these lines: “You are unkind. You are an intellectual snob, you think you’re better than other people.”
I recently read Practicing Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton. Blanton suggests that instead of trying to fix our flaws, (the defences we created as children to avoid punishment or to get what we want) we use them. For example, my self-criticism, (a defence created to try and avoid adults criticising me) could be used to write comedy – or this kind of blog post. Awareness of that self-criticism allows me to feel empathy for others who criticise themselves, so it could be a way of connecting with other people who haven’t as yet found a way through it.
Maybe those critical thoughts I had about being an intellectual snob are true. It’s also true that I am kind, considerate, want to protect people from my unkind thoughts and to give them the best of my kind thoughts. The more I allow both, instead of trying to get rid of one aspect and hang on to the other, the more whole I become. (Or more accurately, the more whole I feel, since I already am whole, just not always aware of it.) The more whole we feel, the more self-acceptance we experience. The more self-acceptance we experience, the more we can accept others.
Would you more practical tips to experiencing self-acceptance? You can download my PDF booklet, How to Maintain Mindfulness Throughout the Day absolutely free. It’s filled with simple exercises and actions to maintain mindfulness during normal daily activities, all designed to help you to feel more alive, calmer and more self-accepting.
This post was written as part of 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion’s July link-up, focusing on Acceptance. You can read more posts, click on the blue button below.
1000 Voices Speak For Compassion is a blogging initiative started in response to violence and alienation in our world. If you would to be part of a movement for loving change, join our Facebook Group, like our Facebook Page, or look for our posts on Twitter with the hashtag #1000Speak. To read more posts about acceptance, click on the blue button below.