In my life lately, I’ve been working on acceptance. In the past, I’ve resisted acceptance. Acceptance seemed weak, like I was okay with failure or not being the best I could be. But as I have grown older, I have realized I do have some limitations. There are certain parts of my life that I can improve, sure. But there are other aspects of my life that probably won’t ever change to the full extent I want them to. And there are some areas of my life that when I try to control it, things actually get worse (e.g., trying to control the behavior of another person).
Which brings us back to acceptance. There are some things in life that we don’t have control over, and we need to work to accept these things. But how do we do it? How can we move toward acceptance in our day-to-day lives? Here are 5 strategies that have helped me accept negative things in my life:
5 Strategies for Acceptance
- Differentiate between what is inside your control and what is outside your control. This first point is critical. If you accept things that you actually have the power to change, you are giving up your power and the opportunity to make your life better. So, make sure you correctly distinguish between the things that are inside your control and outside your control. What’s inside your control? Mainly your own actions and behaviors. Even your thoughts and feelings are sometimes not under your control. The thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others are not under your control. The outcome of an event is not under your control.
- Stay focused on your business. Best-selling author Byron Katie says it’s important to know what is “your business.” I’ve found her model to be helpful. What is inside your business is your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (although as we’ve noted before, your thoughts and feelings aren’t always under your conscious control). Other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are their business. Everything else (e.g., the path of the hurricane, the diagnosis, when you will die) falls under God’s business. It’s best to stay focused on your business, and let other people and God focus on their business.
- Count the cost of experiential avoidance. Often, we struggle to accept negative thoughts and feelings (e.g., depression, anxiety) because they feel too painful. Instead of acceptance, we do something to avoid or control our internal experience. But this strategy often backfires. (If you don’t believe me, try NOT to think about a pink gorilla for the next two minutes. Whatever you do, DON’T THINK ABOUT A PINK GORILLA. It doesn’t work. By trying NOT to think about something, we paradoxically bring more of that thing to our internal experience.) A big part of acceptance is giving up the strategy of experiential avoidance and embracing the reality that a normal, full life involves some level of pain and suffering. We can’t escape it, even if we have a good life.
- Defuse your thoughts. Another reason we struggle to accept our negative experiences is that they seem to control our lives. We might feel as if they are in the driver’s seat. If we are feeling depressed, for example, the depression “causes” us to stay in bed and miss out on our life. If we are feeling anxious, we “can’t” engage with the thing we are afraid of. It’s a huge step to realize that our thoughts don’t control our actions. We can feel a feeling, AND take a step forward in the service of our values. If we think we need to get rid of our depression or anxiety before we start to live our lives, we might be waiting a long time.
- Don’t let your thoughts, feelings, and experiences define who you are. Sometimes acceptance is tough because we let our thoughts, feelings, and experiences define who we are. If we have some depressive feelings, we are worthless. If we have some anxious thoughts, we are crazy. If we were abused growing up, we are a victim. Don’t let your internal experiences define who you are. You are a whole person, separate from your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. You are the container that holds all these things, but they don’t define who you are.
Discussion: What is one thing you are trying to accept in your life right now? Work through the 5 strategies, and see if they can help you accept the part of your life that you are trying to control or avoid.