For many people, acceptance is a sign of weakness or defeat; they see it as giving up or being beaten by someone – or they even view it as resignation. The question is: Do we actually gain anything from battling with situations that are simply the way they are? I believe the answer is no. If we show resistance in the face of things we cannot change, this harms our bodies and minds.
I am an active person who likes to make things happen and who has things under control. That said, I also have to repeatedly learn to live with situations that are painful and difficult (such as death and illness in my circle of family and friends). Like everyone, I encounter setbacks and misfortune and I have to deal with them. One of my most important insights in this context is that it is easier to cope with these situations when I learn to accept them – i.e. to acknowledge that they have happened and that I cannot change them. This is not about resignation. That would be completely alien to me. It is about not resisting things that cannot be altered, even if they go against our wishes or ideas.
One of my favorite subjects is energy. We all have energy reserves that dwindle every now and then and need to be regularly replenished. Not accepting something we cannot change means that we waste energy – and even do ourselves harm. The German psychologist Doris Wolf says: “If we refuse to accept something and fight against change, then we intensify and prolong our mental and physical suffering.” In concrete terms, we harm ourselves because the stress hormone cortisol is released during periods of continued complaint or irritation. Alternatively, we may try to suppress the idea of something unpleasant (e.g. if feelings are too strong to bear). We then drive our negative feelings into the subconscious, and this catches up with us in the long term because the feelings that are suppressed are not processed by our brains (and hearts…).
Acceptance is about regaining your ability to act
When you accept something, it certainly doesn’t mean that you are over it. Every time you encounter a difficult situation – such as the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a job, the death of a family member or friend, or another crisis – you subsequently need time to process the situation. Accepting it doesn’t mean that you think what happened is good. Acceptance is ‘simply’ about assuming that you cannot change the situation. The American psychotherapist Denise Fournier summarized this aptly by saying: “Fighting against what has happened does not make it undone. On the contrary, when we fight against reality, we limit our capacity to deal with the situation.”
Once we accept a situation, we can begin to look forward instead of back. We now have the strength and capacity to look at how best to deal with the crisis. You can apply that to something as simple as a common cold. Instead of getting upset that you’ve become ill and are now suffering (and don’t have time for it…), you can look at what you could do to stop it getting worse or to help yourself recover more quickly. Sometimes you also have to practice calmness and serenity – in so far as there is nothing you can do.
Change my attitude – not the situation
Here are some concrete tips to help you accept difficult situations:
- Adopt the wise words of the ancient philosopher Epictetus: “We can’t always change things, but we can change our attitude towards them.”
- Become aware that you cannot control everything and that you have not personally failed if you find something difficult. Show yourself some compassion and don’t judge yourself. How would you treat someone else in the same situation? You would probably show them understanding, comfort and support of some kind. Do the same for yourself! If you would like to find out more, I recommend reading the book ‘Self Compassion’ by Kristin Neff or do some meditation on ‘loving kindness’ (Metta meditations).
- Be aware that the situation will pass and that your feelings will change. Remember that others have already experienced the same situation and survived it. There are probably also people who have experienced much worse things.
- Confront your negative feelings and examine them. But then look ahead again. Feelings follow thoughts.
- Ask yourself: “Suppose I accept the situation, what would I do then?“ And then do it!
- Think about what has helped you to overcome difficult situations in the past. These proven coping strategies may also help you this time.
- Believe in your own strength, according to the motto: “I have already mastered many things and I can do so this time because…”
- Learn to be grateful for all the good things you actually have in your life. Read my blog about this topic: Link
- And last but not least, my favorite quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that is featured on the homepage of my website: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I am aware that this is not always easy to achieve all this – and that it is a lifelong process. I am not perfect at doing this either … but you benefit from every such experience and become a little wiser each time.
© Claudia Kraaz