In January people evaluate their progress toward goals they made for the past year. Emotionally sensitive people evaluate themselves and wish they were different than they are regardless of what the calendar says. Change can be positive, but sometimes it’s learning acceptance that’s really needed–acceptance of who you are instead of judging yourself as unworthy and living in fear of being rejected.
Some societies don’t understand the concept of judging oneself as unworthy. Our culture tends to be competitive, based on the idea that we have to be “good enough” to succeed, to belong to certain groups, to not be rejected. Many, many years ago being part of a group was necessary for survival. Belonging is still a basic need for everyone.
Mother Teresa once said that the greatest disease of our time was the feeling of not belonging. In a misguided effort to gain acceptance from others, some emotionally sensitive individuals repeatedly criticize and berate themselves. But criticism isn’t a good motivator for change and often leads to the person feeling alienated from him or herself in addition to feeling “less than” others. That adds more suffering.
Acceptance is accepting life on life’s terms. Acceptance is also the idea of accepting yourself, with all your human imperfections. That means that instead of fighting your imperfections and your flaws, you accept them. What’s the good in that? Well suffering consists of the pain in life that you have no control over, plus the upset and resistance you have about that pain, which you do have control over. If you stop resisting or avoiding the pain, then you lower your level of suffering.
Emotions build on each other. So if you feel worried and then you are angry that you are worried, the two emotions combine. Your upset is multiplied. If you feel worried and accept that you are worried, then you only have the original feeling without adding additional emotion to it.
Acceptance doesn’t mean giving in to or agreeing with or being passive. Acceptance is the acknowledgement of what is happening within us, acknowledgement of our emotions, that they exist. Acceptance is letting yourself see reality without judging it. Sometimes acceptance allows you to move forward. Sometimes acceptance leads to change. Sometimes it doesn’t. But acceptance decreases your suffering. When your suffering is lower, you are able to have a more open mind and a broader view of yourself and others. Options may be more clear.
How do you get to acceptance? In his book, The Mindful Path to Self Compassion, Christopher Germer outlines the steps for acceptance: aversion, curiosity, tolerance, allowing, and friendship.
Aversion is usually the first step. This is our resistance to an uncomfortable feeling, our wish to avoid it, even when it’s a minor unhappiness. We all have our avoidance behaviors, perhaps drinking too much or overeating or gambling or overworking. We may start to avoid at the first physical sensation of an unwelcome feeling, before we’re even aware of what we are feeling.
Sticking with the feeling rather than avoiding is the path to acceptance. Mindfulness is what allows you to stay with the feeling, to create a pause so that you don’t push the feeling away without even knowing you are doing it.
Curiosity is wondering about the mood, trying to figure out what caused it, hoping that we can change it. Sometimes even knowing what the source is doesn’t help you change the feeling.
Tolerance means that you endure the mood but wait for it to change, wish it was gone, resist it, perhaps even trying to force cheerfulness. Curiosity and Tolerance require energy and involve discontent in addition to sadness, fear, anger or whatever the original uncomfortable feeling. Keep in mind that for some, happiness can be uncomfortable.
Allowing means letting feelings be, come and go as they will without resistance, judgement, or making building them bigger. This stage brings peacefulness. This is saying, “It is what it is.” Feelings will pass, though often not immediately.
Friendship is being able to see the value in uncomfortable emotions, perhaps the lesson that you learn from them. For example, sadness about a friend is part of our caring for them, being able to feel connected to others. In this stage you may even be grateful for the uncomfortable feeling.
Accepting less desirable feelings takes practice. Being mindful of the here and now, trusting that you are safe, knowing that emotions come and go, and not engaging in avoidance behavior will gradually bring more peace to your life.