Accepting the Things I Cannot Change
Acceptance can be one of the toughest skills to master.
Naturally, we want others around us, situations we encounter, and even our own thoughts and emotions, to be just right; and when they're not, we scramble to problem-solve, racking our brains to try and fix what is "wrong." However, when we focus too much on changing what is out of our control, we quickly find ourselves with mounting frustration, feeling mentally and physically exhausted. Whether we're speaking about a growing workload, a newly diagnosed medical/mental health condition, a difficult person, an intrusive thought, or any other difficult situation, the skill of active acceptance is key.
What do I mean by acceptance?
Acceptance is acknowledging and seeing a situation exactly for what it is, then adapting so that you can continue to live your life, rather than putting life on hold until the distressing situation/feeling/thought is gone.
Here are three tips to help practice actively accepting the situations you cannot change:
1.) Remember that accepting a situation does not mean you have to like it, or that you have “lost” and the situation has “won.” This point is essential. Acceptance does not mean you are weak, have given in, and are succumbing to the burden of the situation in front of you. In fact, acceptance is quite the opposite. It is acknowledging a difficult situation, and then choosing to utilize your energy and resources in a manner that is most effective, productive, and beneficial for you. We often believe that in order to accept a situation, we have to agree with it, be supportive of it, and like it. This is far from true. Accepting the difficult nature of your boss is not the same as agreeing with his/her behavior, and accepting that you will experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, is not the same as saying I am choosing to forever be burdened by them. Acceptance is acknowledging that an unwanted situation exists, and then choosing the most productive step to take based on the reality of the situation.
Ever come across that one person - a friend, coworker, family member - who rarely seems rattled by difficult situations, even when faced with unexpected bad news? Moments where you would think, "how is he/she handling this right now?"
This is where acceptance comes in. It is important to note that these individuals are not happy in these unwanted situations; chances are, they don't like the situation, or agree with it, and are most likely frustrated and angry, just like you. The difference is, they are seeing the situation exactly for what it is, rather than what they think it should be. This allows them to gain emotional distance, and to choose an action that is most helpful for them. They are not looking to change the situation, or wait for it to be different; instead, they are looking for the best way to cope, and to continue moving forward. They are working around the situation, and letting the situation be what it is.
2.) When faced with a situation you wish you could change, think about what you are still able to do, despite the frustration of the situation, and then do it.
EXAMPLE 1: If you are experiencing upsetting, intrusive thoughts, but love to go shopping, ask yourself, can I still engage in the act of shopping, despite those thoughts being there? It is impossible to control our thoughts, so the more we try, the more frustrated we get. You can choose to accept that yes, it may be annoying to carry those thoughts along with me, but if I am waiting for my intrusive thoughts to disappear completely, I will never have the chance to engage in an activity I've always enjoyed. I can acknowledge the thoughts when they arise, then refocus my attention back to the present moment.
EXAMPLE 2: Perhaps you have a very difficult Aunt Sally who shows up to holiday dinners, but you love to see your cousins and other members of the family. You can choose to accept that while yes, Aunt Sally may frustrate you, and perhaps the family dinner will not be ideal, I can still choose to converse with my other family members and make the most out of my evening. I cannot change who Aunt Sally is as a person, just like she cannot change who I am, so if I focus too much on Aunt Sally's behavior, I will be missing out on some pretty good moments of the night. Even enjoying myself 30% of the evening (or 20% of my shopping trip above), is probably better than missing out on them completely. Again, acceptance is not about changing the situation, or person. It is about working around it so that you are not held back.
3.) Be mindful of All-or-Nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking is seeing people and/or situations in either good or bad terms, with no in-between. A situation is either perfect, or it is awful. This can lead to heightened frustration and poor tolerance of many situations, as ideal scenarios are often hard to come by. In all-or-nothing thinking, when a situation is not 100% to our liking, we can be quick to spend our efforts trying to change it - to make it "right." Changing forces that are out of your control can often lead to a dead end, as your "right" is someone else's "wrong." Ruminating on how awful a situation is, and how you need it to be different, will only negatively affect your overall mood, and leave you feeling stuck. It clouds your ability to see any parts of the situation that may actually be okay - the so-called "middle ground" of all-or-nothing thinking. Applying all-or-nothing thinking to Aunt Sally's example above would be: choosing to only go to the holiday dinner if Aunt Sally changes her behavior so the evening can be ideal (the "all"), or staying home and missing out completely because you feel Aunt Sally will only make the evening miserable (the "nothing"). The middle ground is accepting that the evening may not be ideal, but it can still be enjoyable if I choose to focus my attention in the right places.
It may be helpful to ask yourself these two questions during difficult situations: 1.) Am I labeling the entire situation as awful before taking a step back to look at it objectively? 2.) Am I actively trying to work around the situation, and cope with it? Or do my efforts lie in changing it?
Final thoughts: Life will always hand us unwanted challenges. While it can be helpful to take an active approach in problem-solving through them, it is important to be mindful of whether we are working too hard to change external factors, rather than focusing on ways we can personally adapt.
We cannot change the fact that it is raining, that some individuals may choose their words poorly, or that we got fired from a job. We cannot control the onset of mental illness, our genetic makeup, and who stands by our side through tough times. Fighting to change them, or spending time wishing things were different, does not allow us to take a step back and ask "how can I still move forward?" Ex.) Perhaps I can look for a new job that may work out even better, adjust my plans due to the rain (instead of cancelling them out of anger), seek out a professional to help me lead a meaningful and productive life, even with mental health symptoms, and spend more time with friends who are supportive, rather than those who are not.
Remember, accepting a situation and adapting to it, is not giving in and losing the battle. Acceptance is reminding yourself that I do not need to let this difficulty hold me back, and that I can continue to live my life, using the resources I have, even with this difficulty on board.
DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on www.StacySmithCounseling.com contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website. Furthermore, commenting on posts does not mean a treatment relationship has been established with Stacy Smith.