When we don’t like our feelings or thoughts our reaction can often be to push them away - to resist them, to not even want to acknowledge them. While this initially may provide some short-term relief, it often can lead to an ongoing struggle that is far worse than the initial thoughts and feelings themselves.
The alternative to this resistance is acceptance.
First, it‘s important to understand that acceptance doesn’t mean you‘re saying you like the situation. Also, acceptance doesn't mean putting up with or resigning yourself to something that you don't want. Instead, acceptance means simply acknowledging what is happening. Acknowledging what you’re thinking and feeling about what is happening.
For example, imagine you’re talking to a friend and they’re expressing views on a topic that you don’t agree with and which are making you feel uncomfortable. Let’s compare two scenarios regarding your acceptance of the situation.
Scenario 1 - Struggle
As your friend continues to talk, you become increasingly uncomfortable. You try to push away these feelings, perhaps telling yourself, “He’s just talking and will be done soon.” Or “I’m a bad person for thinking he’s an idiot.” Or “I wish he would just shut up!” The whole time you’re sitting there, in silence, and perhaps daydreaming in order to shift your attention off your friend and your discomfort. You’re now not present and you’re feeling stressed.
Your friend persists and picks up steam; taking advantage of your silence and the cycle continues and gets worse. Now you become so worked up that you’re thinking to yourself, “There must be something wrong with me for being so upset up about this.” You eventually leave your time with your friend feeling empty and disassociated from them and the whole experience.
Scenario 2 - Acceptance
In this scenario you take a different approach. You let go of the struggle. You start by accepting what is going on, thinking to yourself, “Ok, I’m feeling uncomfortable. Yes, I can definitely feel it as he’s talking about this topic. I’m getting more tense the more he goes on. I can even feel it in my body. My shoulders feel tight. My heart is beating faster. My palms are even getting a little sweaty.”
Your friend continues to talk. You continue to be aware of how it’s making you feel in your mind and body. You’re staying grounded in the present, not trying to struggle against the situation. You take a few deep breaths and offer, “Hey, I’m not sure what’s going on, but this discussion is making me uncomfortable.“ Your friend may not understand, but has heard you and is hopefully willing to shift the conversation to another topic. You‘ve made them aware of your desires.
As you can see, there are many preferred aspects to scenario 2. While the situation may not resolve itself in the healthy way described, your acceptance of the situation makes you better equipped to resolve it in a way that is good for you, instead of being consumed by trying to push away your feelings, building up resentment, and disassociating from the situation.
Acceptance is the willingness to take the first step and to see things as they are, and to let go of the struggle of trying to push them away.
Acceptance is genuinely an important first step in getting past uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and situations in life. It can provide relief and reduce suffering. It can also help you move forward in areas in which you feel stuck.
Acceptance is becoming aware of the current situation. Acknowledging it. And letting go of the struggle and the energy you burn trying to push it away. Instead, save that energy and use it to take a next step that is good for you.
Here’s another example. Imagine it’s a cold winter day and there is ice on the sidewalk. You may think to yourself, “I can’t even believe there is ice when I have to get to work on time.” Your heart is racing and your stress level is up. You start walking aggressively like you would if there is no ice. And sure enough within a few steps you fall.
In comparison, imagine if you accept that you’re on ice, “Ugh, there’s ice and it’s going to make me late for work. Ok, well let me simply do the best I can in this situation. Falling on the ice and hitting my head will only make things worse. So I’ll do the best I can, one step at a time, aware that the surface is slippery.” You keep your attention on the ice, take deliberate steps, and before long you’re safely at work albeit a few minutes late.
In summary, being able to move forward in challenging situations will likely be more productive if it is preceded by an acceptance of where things currently are. As we noted, this doesn’t mean you have to like the situation. Just that you’re aware of it. This sets you up for a better next step to move forward.