The importance of practising acceptance to your mental health

Acceptance can allow you to enjoy fulfilling activities or good relationships once again

Acceptance is about lifting your head, looking around you and wondering, “Where do I go from here?” Photograph: iStock

Acceptance is about lifting your head, looking around you and wondering, “Where do I go from here?” Photograph: iStock

 

Acceptance is the unwanted child of the wellbeing industry. It sounds defeatist, inactive, a surrender you don’t want to make.

But life is a trail of acceptance. The Buddha is reported to have said that the sources of suffering were sickness, old age, death, not getting what you want and getting what you don’t want. Sounds right to me.

Hence, the need for acceptance in the interests of our mental health.

To move your life forward in the face of, say, unpleasant symptoms that you never expected to have – Long Covid may be the most recent manifestation of this – that medicine is still learning about and the course of which is unpredictable, you will have to practise the art of acceptance. Otherwise you risk increasing your distress in the same way that a bird beating its wings against the bars of a cage increases its distress.

Acceptance isn’t necessarily easy as we know – depending on what you’re accepting, the experience can be bitter.

It can help to think of the process in three stages. The first is a complaining, a sort of lamenting, stage. Here you acknowledge the presence of something in your life that you don’t like – or that you even hate – but though acknowledging it, you complain about it in your head and maybe out loud as well. This is a necessary stage especially, I would say, where loss is involved. It is probably a form of crying.

Lifesaver

But at least you’re acknowledging it. Think of someone who doesn’t acknowledge that they have, for instance, a heart condition, who carries on regardless, and you can see how acknowledgment can be a lifesaver.

In the second stage you’re acknowledging the presence of whatever you don’t like – or the absence of what you miss – but without the same degree of lamentation or complaining. You’re no longer having dramas in your head about it.

Sometimes these first two stages can be over quickly. It doesn’t take all that long to accept that your car was clamped because you took a chance and parked in a loading bay. But if what you’re having to accept is the loss of a business, a life partner, a job or your health, it takes a lot longer to arrive at acceptance – even though an impatient world would like you to get on with it.

The third stage of acceptance is the one to aim for: in this stage you’re saying, given that this is how things are what can I do to get the most out of my life? What can I go back to that I used to enjoy? What new things can I do that will give me an emotional boost?

Working out the answers to these questions, however reluctantly, can open up your life to a renewed experience of fulfilling activities or of good relationships. It can take time though. After a loss, people often feel guilty about even enjoying themselves in small ways. Others believe that pain or another health condition necessarily means they cannot have fulfilling lives ever again – a conversation with a physiotherapist or even others with the same condition might open up many possibilities.

Leads to change

In this and other ways acceptance leads to change, quite outside the whole area of medical conditions. If you accept that you have a drink problem you eventually start looking into what you can do about it. If you don’t, you don’t – and the outcome can be disastrous for you in the long run, and indeed for people who are close to you.

If you accept you’re in the wrong career or doing the wrong educational course you are on the way to looking for something better - otherwise you may end up getting kicked out of the job or course or having to endure years of disgruntlement doing work you hate.

Acceptance isn’t a matter of putting up with injustices in your life or in the wider society that you can do something about. It’s about lifting your head, looking around you and wondering, “Where do I go from here?”

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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