We hear this word, or a version of it, all the time.
“You’re just going to have to accept it.”
“I think he’s having a hard time accepting what happened.”
But what does acceptance mean in the language of resiliency? It’s a broad topic, one we’ll be discussing frequently on this blog. For now, though, I want to look at the more common concept of acceptance – as the opposite of denial.*
The word “denial” comes from the Latin, denegare, and literally means “to refuse, or say ‘no’ to.” I have seen many people “just say no” often and it usually comes in two forms:
• Denying that something has happened. “My house isn’t really going to go into foreclosure.” “I don’t really have a mental illness.”
• Denying the feelings that accompany stress, loss, and trauma.
“Acceptance,” also from the Latin, acceptare, means “to take or receive willingly.” This is a tall order when the thing we’re being asked to “receive willingly” is adversity. So, one thing I want to make clear about acceptance is that you don’t have to like what has happened to you.
Many people confuse the idea of “acceptance” with the idea of giving up instead of fighting their situation. We’ll talk more about this concept in future posts, but let’s set a ground rule now that just because you accept something doesn’t necessarily mean that you like it.
With that in mind, let’s look at how we can combat the issues of denial mentioned above.
1. Learning to accept, rather than deny, that something has happened.
• Try it out. Just play with the idea that the event really has occurred. “I have a mental illness.” What does that feel like to say? What are the odds that it is reality? What would it mean if it were true?
• Have no judgment about it. As you are playing with the idea that the event has occurred – “I have a mental illness” – make no judgments about it, just notice the thought. So, rather than getting caught up in the reaction of “I can’t have a mental illness. That would be the worst thing that ever happened to me. Mental illnesses are awful,” just make the thought very neutral, “I have a mental illness.”
• Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if this is true?” This is a bit of a scary step, but once you have laid your worst fears out in the open, you take the power away from them. And you ready yourself to take action.
2. Learning to accept, rather than deny, the feelings that accompany stress, loss, and trauma.
I really noticed this phenomenon of denying, or at least misnaming, feelings when I talked with people who have been hard hit by the economy. As I listened to their stories, they described stress, but what I also heard was grief. They had experienced major losses but were not putting them within the framework of grief.
When I named their feelings as grief, the light bulb came on and they were able to experience some healing as they pinpointed their actual emotions and mourned their losses.
So, it’s important to be very clear about what you are truly feeling when facing adversity.
• Stop. Do a check-in with your feelings. Take a moment to stop and be still. Really. Quit running around for a minute. Breathe deeply. Now ask yourself what you are truly feeling. If, for example, your house is going into foreclosure, you might immediately list stress, worry, anxiety. These are all valid, but continue to be quiet, still, and honest with yourself. Is there anything else you’re feeling? Grief? Guilt? Shame?
• Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I really feel this way?” Similar to above, once you list your reasons for avoiding your true feelings, you take the power away from the “dark secret” and bring everything into the light to work on.
• Realize that your feelings are okay. Remember that we all share a common humanity and, thus, we all experience similar emotions. You’re not alone! And remember that feelings just are. They act as signals to what is going in with you, but they don’t define who you are. They are neither good nor bad, they just are.
Acceptance can be tough. We’re accustomed to having a lot of control in our lives and acceptance often means letting go of some of that control. But the letting go also brings freedom and is the first step in your ability to bounce back in life.
*Denial is not always a bad thing. It is a protective measure that kicks in when we are stressed and sometimes we need that extra bit of time denial affords us to get ready to adjust to adversity. We just have to be careful about how long we stay in the realm of denial.
What’s hard about acceptance for you?