African American man lifting up a young African American girl as she smiles and stretches her arms as if she is an airplane

Acceptance: Why is it Difficult?

As the saying goes, “what we resist persists.” Acceptance means allowing oneself and others to be exactly as they are. Often we try to change, control, or dictate circumstances in an effort to alter an outcome.

One of the reasons people suffer is that they oppose reality. Lack of acceptance causes suffering. Think of a person who is swimming in an ocean and decides she wants to go back to the shore. The swimmer notices that there is a strong undercurrent holding her back, making it difficult to swim. Rather than going with the  flow of the current the swimmer resists and exhausts themselves in a vein effort to return to the shore. This fight expends great energy that could have been used to accept the current while taking a proper maneuver to regain a safe path to the shore.

 

It is commonplace in my work to hear someone say that they just want to stop feeling a particular feeling. They want their suffering to disappear without making room for the process of getting to know their pain and all of its complexities. As a Psychoanalyst, I often hear statements like “if only” my life would be the way I want. This bargaining with reality keeps the internal battle going. Thinking of ways around reality can be a never ending pursuit leaving us frustrated and grasping.

 

There are reasons why acceptance is difficult. One of which is the belief that if we do not fight to control or change the inevitable then we are giving in to the undesired outcome. The fear of the unknown can lead to feeling out of control. In this case, acceptance can then lead to self-blame. Moreover, we are afraid to take a risk on what is unfamiliar. We gravitate to what is known and away from the unknown. Finally, we are concerned about the future and imagine that accepting things as they are is akin to passivity, which we fear will promote unhappiness.

 

Imagine a person who applies for a job of their dreams and discovers that someone else got the position. Instead of using this scenario for self-examination, the person uses the rejection to criticize themselves. To accept that the job was awarded to someone else could make room for growth and improvement. A person with greater acceptance may think to themselves that there are other jobs out there that are better suited for them. However what is more common is for people to think that if only I did this or that, I would have gotten the position. Believing in one’s own omnipotence keeps the person out of touch with their reality and ultimately ensures stuckness.

 

Imagine, the person whose loved one is dying. It is commonplace for humans to feel helpless in the face of having to tolerate what they cannot control. They may have trouble accepting the finality especially if the death was sudden. However some people spend years in disbelief grasping onto their loved one when they are terminally ill. If that person was to allow the reality of their loved one’s illness to settle in, then they would be better prepared for the death. In Freud’s seminal paper entitled Mourning and Melancholia, he states in part that when a person cannot accept the death of a loved one, instead of grieving, they take on attributes of the deceased as a compromise to ordinary mourning. Some tenaciously grip on to the fantasy that they could have made things turn out differently if they only tried harder.

 

Grieving what we cannot control is a fundamental step toward acceptance. To accept we must go through the difficult steps of that process, such as bargaining, sadness, and disbelief. Mourning or grieving is a necessary step for people to have closure, leading to acceptance. This means that they have to release the wish for things to come out differently. We can convert this energy toward letting go and leaning toward what is present: one’s own reality.

 

Acceptance requires that we let go of our internal battle. We must release our grip and lean into whatever we are afraid of. While it is uncomfortable and anti-intuitive to lean into one’s pain, it is the 1st meaningful step to embrace acceptance.

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