Why is acceptance so essential?
I´ve had two thoughts shuffling through my head on repeat the past few weeks:
Life abroad is an emotional rollercoaster.
Life as a therapist is an emotional rollercoaster.
But the truth is that life, wherever you live, whatever field you´re in, is an emotional rollercoaster.
One of my friends who works as a therapist told me that if his patients get only one thing out of therapy with him he hopes that it is this: acceptance that life is painful.
We beat ourselves up so much when we experience unpleasant feelings. Ironically, this battle to not feel anxious, sad or angry, ultimately only causes us to feel worse. Opting for acceptance, instead of resistance, of our inner emotional experiences is what is behind many of the newer therapy approaches: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Therapies. Thankfully, clinicians and researchers have started to realize that trying to fight the inevitable, to be on a constant quest for euphoria, is actually counter productive.
In the world of mindfulness they express it like this:
While pain is inevitable, struggling is optional.
The struggle is the mess we create when we try not to feel the pain. When we tell ourselves we shouldn´t feel that way, when we numb ourselves, when we say we can´t handle these feelings. If you´ve ever been to a yoga class you know it is only in accepting that your muscles are tense in a certain pose that you can actually find yourself relaxing into that pose. The same is true of our unpleasant emotions. Acceptance is key.
And acceptance is a wonderful skill to practice because we can apply it not only in relationship to our internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, etc.) but also to external experiences. It´s not only our inner emotional experiences that we don´t have 100% control over, each and every day we encounter events and people outside of us that we can´t control either.
We seek this feeling of control in order to find a sense of comfort in the looming uncertainty that we are faced with day after day. And this can manifest itself as worry, perfectionistic tendencies, disordered eating, avoidance of certain people or situations that cause us uncomfortable feelings…the list is endless.
But trying to control the uncontrollable, whether it is going on inside of you or outside of you is exhausting and not a long term solution (that is, if you want a long term solution that doesn´t lead to deterioration of your well-being and relationships). We seek control in the hopes of feeling comfortable and safe, but it is only in accepting the uncertainty and unknown that we can actually find that comfort and safety that we all crave. The certainty that regardless of what situation we find ourselves in, that when the moment actually calls for it (not when it is merely a hypothetical ¨What if¨ situation), we will be entirely capable of springing into action, problem solving and protecting ourselves and those around us.
The past couple of weeks I have come face to face (in both my personal and professional life) with people considering suicide, people who have committed suicide, people whose livelihood is on the verge of collapse, people whose hearts have been broken and don´t give themselves permission to grieve, people who are finally admitting they´re not ok, people who worry they´ll never be ok, people whose family members have suddenly passed away, people whose pasts are filled with trauma and many many people who don´t want to give themselves permission to be human.
Life is hard. Life is fragile. And when I read the paragraph above I can´t help but ask myself the question that so many people ask me when they learn I´m a psychologist, ¨How can you handle dealing with so much tragedy?¨
This work forces me to strive for acceptance myself. To constantly tune in to my own self-care needs and reflect on big issues. It is not a job I believe one can do without knowing themselves well and having the ability to identify and regulate their own emotions. It is not a job that can be done if you´d rather see life as a euphoric adventure than the rollercoaster that it is. It is a job with a high level of burnout for a very good reason which I think lies largely in the fact that it requires you to take such care of yourself outside of work, which our society as a whole tends to not be very good at.
However, I also see this as one of the benefits of the job. As a therapist, I will never be able to do my job well if I am becoming complacent in my own life, letting fear take priority over intuition. My intuition is one of my biggest assets in sessions with clients. Like Paulo Coelho says in his famous book ¨The Alchemist,¨ ¨If you give into fears, you won´t be able to listen to your heart.¨
As a therapist I not only need to work on accepting the pain, discomfort and unpleasantness I encounter in my personal life, but also acceptance of the pain felt by my patients and thus acceptance of the feelings their pain brings up in me. Not to mention acceptance that my role as a therapist (or as a friend, family member or girlfriend) is not to eliminate another person´s pain. Regardless of my instinctual desire to want to help others skip over these less than glamorous chapters in their lives, I ultimately know that in this pain we also find opportunities for growth. And I know that it is not fair for me to cheat others of the opportunities for learning and growth that life presents them with.
I know I am in the right line of work because deep down, because amidst this pain I also I find human connection, resilience, coping, inspiration and people who are ultimately learning how to truly live. You´d be surprised at how much I actually laugh in my sessions, and I feel honored that people entrust me with their deepest sorrows, trusting that I have some answers in how they can make their way through the pain.
In the face of pain and the fears that come along with it, it is so tempting to seek control over acceptance. Acceptance requires us to be brave, courageous, human. To leap into the unknown, trusting we will create a net to catch ourselves, regardless of what lies ahead. And it is an attitude that can only happen in the here and now which means learning to balance a carpe diem mentality with the responsibility of planning for tomorrow, and finding balance in life is a challenge in and of itself.
However, I believe that seeking balance is one of the greatest challenges we have in our time here on earth. And facing the present moment with a curious and accepting attitude can remind us that uncertainty does not always have to equal pain. I know for myself that whenever I step off the beaten path and get over my initial jitters brought on by the unknown, I suddenly notice the scent of freshly cut grass, the sound of the person peacefully breathing next to me and the vibrant color of the fire hydrants dotting the sidewalks. A change of scenery brings a change of perception and an entirely new appreciation of what it means to be ALIVE.
It can be scary to tune into the present moment because ultimately it means no longer allowing ourselves to be silenced by the promise of a tomorrow. It means trading in a life dictated by the ¨shoulds¨ and taking a hard look in the mirror. This is tough stuff. But I believe it´s really the only way to truly find comfort in the chaos that is life. The truth is that you don´t have any possible way of knowing what will happen in the next five minutes. Not in terms of your internal experience of thoughts and feelings, nor your external experience of events and people that surround you. However, it is only in acceptance of this reality that come along with our human existence that we can truly begin to embrace each moment for what it truly is.
“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” ~James Baraz