The paradox of acceptance
Acceptance is about taking ownership of challenges and reclaiming the energy and inspiration to rebuild, reinvent and recreate yourself and your life.
Whatever challenging situation you might be facing right now — whether you’re going through an illness, a relationship breakdown, grieving or grappling with the changes that come with parenting, ageing or COVID-19 — is resistance holding you back and keeping you unhappy?
While resistance can be a good thing when your actions can change the outcome or the future, that’s not always the case. When you become stuck in unchangeable situations, it can feel like life is happening to you and that you have lost your agency and power to direct your life. You may struggle to see solutions and feel positive and hopeful.
It makes sense that we resist the things we wish were different, that we ruminate on the things we wish we could go back and change and we grieve the things that are no more. While it’s normal to want to resist unwelcome change, resistance can create more pain and suffering.
The struggle to accept things in life arises from the tension that exists between where you are now and where you want to be. Tension also arises when what has happened is not what you wanted to happen. It’s this inability to accept change in your life that can keep you stuck, focused on the negative and drained. Over time resisting and fighting the big and small changes in your life can become extremely exhausting on your mind, your body and your spirit.
When resistance is not serving you, how can you move to a place of acceptance? While acceptance can be perceived as an act of giving in, giving up or losing hope, the opposite is actually true. Acceptance is empowering.
Empowered acceptance is what frees up your vital energy, broadening your perspective and providing the necessary space to create greater meaning and purpose in your life. This is the paradox of acceptance — while acceptance seems like an act of giving up, it’s actually a courageous decision to take back your control and power.
The first time I truly understood the power of acceptance was in my 20s when I was newly diagnosed with a chronic health condition. Unable to work, exercise or look after myself day-to-day, chronic illness completely changed how I was living. I didn’t want to accept that this was my new life, so for the first year of my illness I did everything I could to find a treatment to get well and get my old life back. When nothing was working and I’d racked up $10,000 in medical bills, I made the difficult decision to stop resisting my illness.
While I was still hoping that in time I would improve, I wanted to live my life as well as I could in the present moment. I didn’t want to spend all my precious energy searching for that elusive “cure” only to be constantly disappointed. I was tired of resisting and fighting.
While some people felt I was giving up, acceptance gave me my life and my power back. Constantly resisting my illness and fighting for the past was wearing me out and making my whole life’s focus about my illness. Resistance felt disempowering to me.
When I moved to a place of acceptance, I found more energy, freedom and positivity. Acceptance freed me to ask different questions of myself and my life. Instead of asking, “How do I get my old life back?” I asked, “How can I live well with this illness?”
This shift in mindset allowed me to focus on what I could still do, how I wanted to feel and what I wanted to create in my life. I started writing, reading about health and wellness, engaging in the creative arts, spending time in nature and resetting my mind daily through gratitude, meditation and yoga. While my journey back to health took seven years, I believe acceptance gave my body a better chance to heal and recover, as acceptance lowered my stress levels significantly.
Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Dr Viktor Frankl writes in his book Man’s Search For Meaning, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Frankl goes on to say, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
From the big life events to the small everyday challenges, in situations that are not easily reversible or impossible to change, empowered acceptance is often the only healthy way forward.
5 steps to empowered acceptance
Step 1: Reflect
When you’re in the thick of your challenges it can be easy to miss the impact resistance is having in your life. Take some time to reflect on what resistance is costing you and how it might continue to impact your life over time.
Reflect on what areas of your life you are resisting at the moment. How is it making you feel? Ask yourself, “If I don’t change my response, what problems do I envisage occurring in the long term?”
Step 2: Real
Empowered acceptance requires deep self-compassion — moving forward in a way that honours your feelings, your experiences, your losses and your fears. Acceptance is never about downplaying, dulling or devaluing your emotions. It’s also not about just “moving on”, as you may have been told by well-meaning friends, family or even strangers.
I lost my dad 11 years ago, and even though I’ve accepted his passing, I still feel the pain and loss of not having him in my life and knowing I won’t see him again. When I hear a song that takes me back or a photo that sparks a memory, I let the tears flow. My tears remind me that my dad mattered to me and I never want those emotions to disappear.
Give yourself permission to acknowledge how you feel and to honour what you are going through and move forward with kindness and self-compassion.
- What is the hardest part of accepting this change?
- What do I need to grieve in order to accept this change?
- How can I be kind to myself as I navigate this time in my life?
Step 3: Reframe
It’s hard to accept and move through difficult times if you feel that what you’re going through has no purpose. Whether you believe things happen for a reason or not, making the conscious choice to create meaning from your challenges is an important step in reclaiming your power.
For most of us, COVID-19 has been a massive challenge, bringing great change and uncertainty. Like a lot of people, my husband was out of work for a period of time during COVID-19. To manage the stress and uncertainty of being unemployed, my husband continued to apply for jobs, but chose to reframe his mindset about his time off work. He chose to see his unplanned time off as an opportunity to spend time with our young son and together as a family — he called it his paternity leave.
By reframing his situation, he was able to lower his stress, see the upside of his situation and actually enjoy the time off. As Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” While it might take time to find the opportunity within your difficulty, it certainly makes acceptance much easier and can help you make the best of a difficult situation.
- What meaning or purpose could I create from this difficult situation?
- Is there something this challenging time could teach me?
- Is there opportunity within this difficult time?
Step 4: Refocus
What you pay attention to shapes how your brain perceives the world. What you focus on magnifies in your life. If you’ve ever been looking to buy a new car, you will have noticed that suddenly people everywhere are driving the same make and model you want to buy. It seems like an uncanny coincidence or a “sign”, but it’s actually an incredible example of how your brain filters information based on what you’re focusing on in your life.
Knowing how to choose your focus during challenging times is essential for building resilience, protecting your wellbeing and being open to noticing the good within your difficulties. Seeing your life through the lens of gratitude begins with one simple question, “What is good in this moment?”
My husband and I would love to move to a larger home to accommodate the growing needs of our little family, but for now that’s not an option. Instead of focusing on wanting something I don’t have and can’t change right now (which can be stressful), I’ve chosen to accept our home and to focus instead on what I can be grateful for.
When I consciously shifted my focus to acceptance and gratitude, I found that so much of what’s on my “dream home list” I already have: a home in a quiet street, birdlife, closeness to great cafés, a wonderful community and neighbours, a backyard, a double garage, an office space. We might not have everything we want in a family home, but I can now see we have so much to enjoy and be thankful for.
Being able to refocus on gratitude, beauty and joy is essential during difficult times and rebuilding after loss. In her book, Wholehearted Grief: A Guide to Finding Joy after Loss, Pauline Roberts shares her story of losing her husband and son to Huntington’s disease and how she has navigated those massive losses in her life.
In her book, she says, “Seeing beauty that exists around you takes you beyond your immediate discomfort or pain and connects you with something greater.” She goes on to say, “Each day, take time to notice something that brings you a sense of wonder or joy.”
- What could I be grateful for in this challenging time?
- Within this situation, what is good and working well?
- How can I consciously look for beauty and joy in the small things every day?
Step 5: Rituals
Your brain feels safe when there’s order, structure and predictability. When faced with uncertainty your brain needs something to hold on to in order to keep your stress levels in check. When you can’t change the big stuff, you can change the small stuff by creating new rituals that support you, ground you and re-energise you.
In his Psychology Today article “The anxiety-busting properties of ritual”, psychologist Nick Hobson says, “Rituals are an effective shield that protect us from the onslaught of uncertain events.” Hobson goes on to say, “The defining features of rituals … buffer against uncertainty by evoking a sense of personal control and orderliness.”
When I speak with friends and family about how they have managed the changes that have come as a result of COVID-19, they reveal that rituals have provided a powerful anchor amid the sea of change and uncertainty. For some it has been getting up at the same time each day, getting dressed in work clothes even though they are now working from home, having a glass of wine after work with their partner, playing board games with their kids at the end of a day of home schooling or taking a lunchtime walk around the block.
Creating a morning ritual is also a great way to start the day well and support your wellbeing. Hal Elrod’s book, The Miracle Morning, outlines six key steps to include in your morning ritual: time in silence, affirmations, positive visualisation, exercise, reading and journaling. These steps are designed to centre you, focus your mind and prime your brain and body for an energised and positive day.
- What rituals could I use to start the day well?
- What daily rituals could help me feel more calm and joyful?
- What daily rituals could help me connect meaningfully with others?
As Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” You can’t control what will unfold in your life, but you can move past resistance to a place of empowered acceptance. It takes courage to accept what is, but through acceptance you can take your power back and move forward with greater ease, purpose, meaning, gratitude and joy.