Imagine that you’re swimming in the ocean. You’re quite a distance from land because out here it’s quiet, peaceful. Eventually your muscles tire, and your body tells you that it’s time to return to shore. As you start toward land, you realize that you’re caught in a strong undercurrent, making it difficult to swim. Rather than going with the flow and letting the current take you where it will, you resist and you muscle your way forward. You make it to shore, but your struggle to return to safety has completely exhausted you.
In our day-to-day lives, we often resist undercurrents. We argue against reality. We try to change, fight, control, or dictate, all in the hope that we can alter an undesirable outcome. That struggle usually causes suffering, and often nothing changes. As the saying goes, what we resist persists.
In my line of work, I often encounter people who say that they want an experience or a feeling to end. “If only I had the life I saw in my head when I was young,” they tell me. “If only I could stop feeling so sad when I think about her,” they say. They want their suffering to cease before they’ve made space for the process of getting to know their feelings or fully understanding the complexities of their situations. Like the swimmer fighting the undercurrent, they believe that they can power their way to safety, but this bargaining with reality only ensures that the internal battle will persist. The never-ending fight against the current leaves them frustrated and grasping. The false belief in their omnipotence guarantees “stuckness.”
Acceptance means allowing yourself, others, and circumstances to be exactly what you and they are. It means that you stop swimming toward shore and you let the current take you. But I realize that it’s easier said than done. Acceptance is a struggle for most people, especially when it means sitting with painful feelings or with unmet wishes. Most folks I sit with are convinced that if they don’t fight to control outcomes, then they’re surrendering to discomfort, that they’re being passive observers rather than active fulfillment seekers. They fear and resist the unknown. To avoid the unfamiliar, they return to well-worn paths, which bring them right back to where they began.
We perceive passivity as weakness, but the truth is that acquiescence is a sign of inner strength. A person who learns to acquiesce is a person with grit, someone who is resilient and who can adapt to various circumstances. Much like someone in a 12-step program, a person with grit works to accept the things they can’t change and seeks to avoid wasting time bargaining with reality.
Now imagine that your spouse of twenty years has suddenly died. Many people in this situation feel helpless in the face of death. Rather than accepting the loss of the spouse, some people stop living and barely leave the house. They might even refuse to eat or to engage in other acts of self-care. This internal protest does nothing to bring the spouse back. It only brings the mourner’s life to a standstill. Resisting reality is like believing that you’re getting younger rather than older. It does nothing but keep you stuck. In Freud’s paper “Mourning and Melancholia,” he explained that people who don’t properly mourn, who don’t allow the deceased to rest in peace, may take on the attributes of the deceased person, in an effort to keep them alive. This is an unconscious way of refusing to mourn.
Although acceptance will ultimately improve your life, it’s not easy. Grieving is a painful process that involves leaning into uncomfortable truths, into fear, and into uncertainty. It means letting go of the wish that things could have turned out differently. It’s non-intuitive to lean into the unknown, but it’s necessary in order to develop emotional muscle. And when we finally accept our present reality, we turn back the tide of loss. We don’t waste energy, and we return to the business of living.
One last visualization exercise before I go: Imagine yourself loosening your psychological grip on your mental picture of how the world should look. Just for today, see yourself ceasing to try to change yourself, your circumstances, or other people. Picture yourself accepting everything in your life exactly as it is.
Feels lighter, doesn’t it?