Have you ever had a situation in your life that couldn’t be changed and where every part of you cried out for it to be different somehow? Some examples that come to mind are the death of a loved one, a dire medical diagnosis such as stage 4 cancer, or your spouse telling you they want a divorce when you want to save the marriage. In any of these cases, the situation is one that is completely undesirable and unwanted. If you have been in a situation like this, what did you? Did you think about it a lot and think about how you didn’t want it or how it was unfair or how hard it was? It would be understandable if you did. I think most of us have that reaction at least initially.
There’s a problem with this urge to deny or reject the situation, to want it to be different. The best way I can illustrate this problem is to tell you to imagine two people fighting. One person reaches out and grabs the other person by the upper arms to push them away. At that moment, consider that they are actually holding on to the person they want to push away. Or you could say that by holding the other person’s arms, that person wouldn’t be able to leave, at least not without a struggle. Either way, the person who wants the other to be gone is actually connected to them. When we struggle against acknowledging the reality of a situation or event or fact which we do not like but which cannot be changed, we are doing the same thing. We are holding on to the thing that we don’t want. And while we are holding on to it, this situation, event, or fact is right in front of us, filling our vision. It’s taking all of our attention and energy and we can’t see anything past it. We are stuck in our misery with no option, because what we want (for this thing to be different) isn’t possible. As long as we are focused on wanting the situation, event, or fact to be different and insisting that it can’t be as it is, we are inflicting additional and avoidable suffering upon ourselves.
I’ve just told you that the way most of us react in this situation—this desire to deny or reject the reality, to want the thing that can’t be changed to change—is normal and understandable and you can see that it is also problematic. We’re stuck in a struggle with this thing that cannot be changed. We cannot win this struggle, only exhaust and hurt ourselves trying. Then what other option is there?
The option is radical acceptance. And I’m going to tell you that as I describe it, radical acceptance can sound a whole lot easier than it is in real life when you are trying to practice it. In short, radical acceptance is acknowledging that the thing you want desperately to be different is not going to change. And once you can accept the reality that the situation will remain as it is, the way you don’t want it, you can release your hold on it. You are now able to move around and see more than just the terrible thing that you want changed. Radical acceptance does not ask you to pretend it’s okay. It’s not okay. Not at all. It’s terrible, in fact, and if you could change it, you would. It’s okay to say these things to yourself. “This situation sucks. I don’t like it and I wish it could be different, but it’s not. It’s not going to be different.” Once you have accepted this fact, you now have the ability and the freedom to figure out how you can live your best life in spite of, or around, the undesirable situation, event, or fact. Radical acceptance frees you from the “stuckness” of wanting something that can’t change to be different.
I said at the beginning that radical acceptance sounds easier than it is to practice. In fact, when I am practicing radical acceptance, I find that I have to make the choice to accept the situation over and over again. I accept it and make my peace with the reality of the situation and I begin to move on. And then at some point I usually realize that I’m back at the beginning, kicking and screaming (figuratively) in denial and wanting it to be different. So I have to repeat the process. Sometimes you may have to make the decision to radically accept something more than once. An example of this would be a person who has a substance use problem. Although some people are able to stop cold turkey and have success and never relapse or lapse, for many people dealing with addiction is a series of attempts to quit using. Each time a person resolves to quit there is a moment of radical acceptance: “This substance is killing me (or ruining my life). I can’t consume just a little. I have to accept that I have to walk away from using this substance at all, as impossible as it might be to imagine living without it.”
Radical acceptance is hard. Radical acceptance is also the path toward greater peace, less pain, and more possibilities and options. If you have been struggling with an unchangeable circumstance that you want to be different, try radical acceptance.
During this time of pandemic, people everywhere are struggling and dealing with terrible realities that they would do anything to change if it was possible. This is an extremely tough time for so many of us. Little feels normal and much feels awful. We are surrounded by stresses. I can’t change the unchangeable, but I can sit with you in your grief and loss and I can help you identify, when you are ready, new ways of living your life in your new circumstances. As always, I invite you to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me. You can schedule a consultation or a full appointment through the online calendar (click the orange “Schedule appointment” button at the top of the page), or you can email or call/text me, whatever is most comfortable and convenient for you. And remember, if you are dealing with the loss of a job or a significant cut in income as a result of the pandemic, I’m offering up to 4 sessions for $30 each and it is likely you would qualify for my sliding scale if you wished to have more than four sessions. My sliding scale starts at $30.