The Challenge of Acceptance

I have been thinking a lot about acceptance, about how difficult it is to do and about how the word simply does not reflect how challenging it is. One of my beloved teachers reminds me that we tend to think of acceptance as a passive process when in fact acceptance is a very active process, requiring us to make decisions and choices and harness our will power.

One woman who speaks and writes a lot about acceptance is the psychologist Marsha Linehan, creator of dialectical behaviour therapy (or DBT). Using the term “radical acceptance” from the Zen Buddhist tradition, she describes it here as “a practice of letting go of having to have what you wanted at any moment.” She clarifies that “suppressing what you want is not the way to go, you have to radically accept that you want something, you don’t have it, and it’s not a catastrophe.”

So acceptance is not about trying to find a positive spin on a painful experience; it is not about silver linings or denying pain. It is about seeing things as they are. Here Linehan explains that when you refuse to accept your pain, you end up with suffering and agony.

Or as my teacher explains, we wrap our pain in layers of suffering. We tell ourselves stories about why we are experiencing pain, what it means about our worth, what it means about fairness and justice. We make assumptions about how the pain will impact our future. We get stuck thinking it will never change. We rail against our experience. We start believing these thoughts and soon we are mired in suffering.

I see it like this – a rose where the centre of the flower (the stigma and stamens) is the pain and the petals wrapping around it are the layers of suffering:

I have a friend with chronic illness. She explained to me that when she experiences new symptoms, it is not the pain of the symptoms that causes her the most distress, it is the fear of what the symptoms point to, what they might indicate about her future health. So there is a physical sensation or an emotional experience and as we bring it into our conscious mind, the mind leaps forward, racing to make meaning, adding stories and beliefs and assumptions. And – voila! – we have wrapped our pain in suffering.

And we can be gentle with this. This is what our mind does. As psychologist Rick Hanson reminds us, our brains evolved to have a “negativity bias” – negative stimuli produce more activity in the brain than positive stimuli; the amygdala devotes more neurons to looking for threat than to pleasure and arousal, and negative experiences are laid down in our memories faster and easier than positive ones. This is because our Ancestors needed to be very vigilant against real and deadly threats in hostile environments. The ones that were vigilant lived to pass on their genes, while those that were relaxed or oblivious were killed.

We have inherited this brain that is so keen to spot risk and threat at every turn, even though few of us are actually at risk much of the time. Our job then is to go against that bias, make a choice to slow down our racing mind and give the mind the task of accepting what is in front of us.

When we begin to accept what we have in front of us, the layers of suffering begin to fall away to uncover our pain. As the petals of the rose fall away, we are left with the stamens and the pistil. These might be fertile. They might develop into rose hips, the fruit to seed the next generation. They might not but we do not know.

Yes, it still hurts. We may not like it. We may wish for something different. But there is a clarity and centeredness with acceptance, an ability to sit with what is here and what happened before. And eventually there will be an ability to move forward, even if we cannot change what we do not want.