The start of the New Year is fascinating to me because it can be a time of great joy and a time of great anxiety. While the opportunity to be surrounded by family and friends can intensify a sense of connection for some, it creates a sense of loneliness for others. The pressure to be social can make this season feel like something to be endured rather than savored. Looking forward to a fresh start can be offset by insecurity and uncertainty about what is on the horizon and the ability to follow through on newly made resolutions.
All of this makes this time a wonderful opportunity to practice acceptance. The psychological flexibility that is created by this practice borders on a superpower. The research is clear – acceptance reduces the intensity of both emotional and physical pain. It is so powerful that psychologists are teaching acceptance strategies as an intervention for treating and protecting against post-traumatic stress. But there is more to acceptance than dealing with difficulty – it leads to increased happiness and appreciation for life, greater resilience and growth in the face of challenge, more meaningful and rewarding relationships, and stronger problem-solving skills.
I know from first hand experience how powerful this practice can be. I struggled for many years with overwhelming anxiety and doubt – especially in social situations. I tried self-medicating and distracting myself with all kinds of unhealthy activities, none of which did anything more than offer a temporary escape. When I started a mindfulness practice in my late twenties, I began to get a sense of how physical the whole experience was – thoughts of harsh self-judgment and fear were accompanied by sensations in my stomach, chest, and throat. I tried figuring out where these came from and why I was feeling them. I tried blaming my parents, my past, my genes, and the people around me. When nothing else seemed to work – when I ran out of other strategies – I was left with acceptance.
This basic observation was very helpful: these sensations had not yet killed me, but on several occasions, my attempts to avoid them almost had. I fumbled my way through the practice of just allowing discomfort to come and go. After countless deep breaths, and many reminders that what I had tried in the past wasn’t working, something started to happen. More of the time I was able to notice when anxiety arose without reacting to it. With more practice, I found that I could smile gently in recognition of anxiety and then move my attention to what really mattered.
Acceptance can be confused with resignation or apathy, but it is not the same as giving up or doing nothing. Acceptance is an active approach to unwanted experience – it creates the space to respond based on what matters most. For example, accepting that people are hungry can lead to addressing the problem. Accepting that meeting new people comes with a tight chest and racing heart can lead to connecting with others in meaningful ways. Brene Brown writes brilliantly in Daring Greatly about the vulnerability to accept that you get scared or anxious as a prerequisite for courage.
The 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi, makes the case for the power of acceptance in his poem The Guest House:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The more I practice being accepting of my own anxiety and discomfort, the less frequently and intensely it occurs. While this is a pleasant side effect, this is not the point of acceptance. As soon as we use acceptance as a strategy to get rid of something, then it is no longer acceptance. The bottom line is that as a human being, you are going to experience discomfort. The belief that we can somehow keep pain from showing up adds unnecessary struggle to our lives. If you focus your energy on avoiding discomfort, then you are going to miss out on a lot of wonderful opportunities to enjoy, grow, contribute, and achieve. When a difficult circumstance arises and you are feeling uncomfortable, acceptance is a crucial step in the process of refocusing your attention on what is really important to you. No matter what your life circumstances, you can give yourself and others the gift of acceptance and compassion — you may be surprised with the results.
For more on acceptance, try these books:
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach,
- The Happiness Trap by Russell Harris
- Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven Hayes