To accept something involves three aspects:
Acknowledgment of reality. This involves admitting that reality – including unpleasant reality – exists. You see it as inevitable that many things will not be to your liking. You view uncertainty, frustration and disappointment as aspects of normal life.
Absence of any demand that reality not exist. This means that although you may prefer yourself, other people, things, or circumstances to be different from how they are (and you may even work at changing them), you know there is no ‘Law of the Universe’ which says they should or must be different.
Keeping unwanted realities in perspective. You dislike some things, and find them unpleasant – but you avoid catastrophising them into ‘horrible’ or ‘unbearable’.
Acceptance of reality includes many things
There are many realities people are called upon to accept. Here are some that are especially relevant to emotional health:
Uncertainty. In the real world there are no certainties. The outcomes of our actions can never be guaranteed. It is helpful to anticipate the future, but we can never know for sure what it holds.
Utopia is unlikely. You and I will almost certainly never get everything we want. This includes total happiness or personal perfection. We will probably always experience some pain, anxiety, or depression.
There are limitations to personal change. There are many things we can change, like anxiety and depression. But there are some things that will not change no matter how much we try, as Martin Seligman points out in his book What You Can Change and What You Can’t (Random House, Sydney, 1994). Accepting this reality can help people avoid much unnecessary distress.
We cannot change others. One thing we can never change is other people. Only they can change themselves. Accepting this reality may save a lot of pain.
What acceptance is not
Many people have trouble with the idea of acceptance. They think that to accept something means they have to like it, agree with it, justify it, be indifferent to it, or resign themselves to it.
Acceptance is none of these things. You can dislike something, see it as unjustified and continue to prefer that it not exist. You can be concerned about it. You can take action to change it, if change is possible. But you can still accept it by rejecting the idea that it should not exist and that it absolutely must be changed.
Why acceptance is important to emotional health
Hurting yourself does not change what you dislike, and will only take away energy better used to confront and solve problems. By reducing the intensity of your bad feelings, you will be less disabled by them. Acceptance can, paradoxically, increase your chances of changing what you dislike!
Acceptance will help you tolerate what you cannot change, and avoid adding unnecessary emotional pain to the unpleasantness of the situation itself.
Acceptance, finally, will help you avoid wasting time and energy and risking your emotional or physical health by striving for what is unattainable.
Developing acceptance of reality
Take note of non-accepting thoughts and behaviour. Watch out for:
Believing that people or things should be different to how they are; that it is awful and intolerable when things are not as they should be; that the world should be a fair place; that one should always be treated fairly.
Feeling angry but unable to do anything.
‘Needing’ to get other people to admit they are wrong, or avoiding acceptance because it might mean giving away a sense of self-rightness.
Keep reality in perspective. When facing an unpleasant development in your life:
Use the ‘time-projection’ technique.
Ask ‘Is this situation, event or possibility really so bad for me?’
Develop a ‘catastrophe scale’.
Query yourself: ‘How much do I really need to upset myself over this?’
Challenge your demands that reality not be as it is. Ask yourself:
‘Can I really change … (this person, this situation, etc.)?’
‘Though I would prefer that … be different to how it is, where is it written that it should be?’
‘Why must this not happen?’
‘Is demanding that this person change going to make them change – or would I be better to try and understand how they see things and then attempt to talk with them?’
Regularly remind yourself that human beings are fallible and not perfectible.
Don’t retaliate when people do things you dislike.
See the world for what it really is (and always has been) – imperfect.
Practice being satisfied with compromises and less than perfect solutions to problems.
To sum up
We can sum up our discussion of acceptance with a paraphrase of a well-known saying. It suggests that to achieve happiness, there are three things to strive for: the courage to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we can’t – and the wisdom to know the difference (a saying originally coined by a Taoist monk, popularised by Reinhold Niebuhr, adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, and paraphrased by Gunars Neiders.
One last thing. Don’t make these principles into demands. They are ideals. Probably no-one could practice them all consistently. Rather than see them as absolute ‘musts’ for managing your stress, use them as guidelines to a better life.