Fact of life

Accepting one's life as it is is an important first step to changing the things you want to change.

By Sangbarta Chattopadhyay & Namita Bhuta
  • Published 10.12.17
Adele dealt with a devastating heartbreak in 2009 by writing music and accepting everything she felt in the process — longing, rejection, betrayal, anger, revenge, love. The result was the Grammy-winning album 21 in 2011 which has some of her best songs ever — Someone Like You and Rolling in the Deep

There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy 
— American psychologist Albert Ellis

What we do not realise is that often what’s coming in the way of our happiness is our list of ‘musts’. How do we overcome these?  One of the ways is by being mindful of our own ‘musts’.

This can be done by... 

• Observing our emotions, such as “I am irritated at myself for not being happy as I must always be happy”.

• Being aware  of the talk that goes on in our head, like “I must be perfect at all times”.

• Watching our reactions to situations, such as “If things don’t go the way I want them to, I feel pissed off”. 
As we become conscious of these, we also need to develop flexibility, kindness and acceptance towards ourselves and others. 

What is acceptance?

Acceptance can mean different things, depending on the context. Psychologically speaking, one can say it’s the ability to experience or acknowledge life as it is. Being in denial of certain facts of reality or running away from a particular situation is the opposite of acceptance. 

To be mentally healthy and functional, one needs to practise some degree of acceptance. Studies on acceptance at the workplace by Prof Frank Bond and his colleagues at the University of London have shown that individuals with higher acceptance levels have better mental agility, better mental health and better job performance.

What are we ‘accepting’ actually?

We experience life in two ways. One is our external experience — of life situations and events that include our interactions with people, our health and our work. These are things that we can only partially control or sometimes have no control over at all. 

And then there is the internal experience — our reactions and responses to these events and situations, and the emotions we feel as a result. These are the things that we can change or control. 

Many of us tend to think that acceptance means we have to accept the external experience only and can overlook our internal experience. Well, the internal experience in fact is more important in the long run and also easier to regulate. 

In life, some things just happen out of the blue. You’re waiting at the signal and a car rams into your car from behind. While you can do little about the fact that it has happened, brooding over it might be counterproductive. You’re not able to undo the damage done to your car, but by accepting it you can at least reduce your own suffering and may be calm enough to take necessary action, like lodging a police complaint and claiming insurance. 

Then there are life situations that are difficult to come to terms with easily or quickly, like failing an important exam, losing a job, or a loved one passing away. It is important to identify and acknowledge our feelings and accept them the way they are. We can allow ourselves to feel the loss, and mourn or grieve it. If we are sad, angry or hurt, we can learn to acknowledge and accept these feelings too. It is absolutely all right to feel hurt, angry or sad in such contexts. And being okay with our own emotions sometimes helps us to be at peace quickly. This kind of acceptance means that neither are we justifying and brooding over our feelings, nor are we judging, rejecting or suppressing them.

What acceptance is not

Many tend to confuse psychological acceptance as giving up, or not being proactive, or as if it’s the end of life. That is not what acceptance is. 

Let’s say, you have shared something in confidence with a friend and they have gone ahead and disclosed it to others. Then it is possible that you may feel angry, hurt, betrayed or let down. Acceptance in this case would mean first accepting your own emotions and that it is okay to feel this way. Next would be to accept the flaw in your friend — that contrary to your expectation, he/she is not a person who can keep a secret. First, acceptance can help you reconcile with the situation and second, it can help you take a proactive stand of either communicating calmly to your friend about how you felt, or making sure that you do not share your secrets with this friend in the future. 

Accept, in order to change

Accepting one’s life as it is is an important first step to actually changing the things you want to change. If a student wants to score 95 per cent in the board exams, the first thing she has to do is identify her skill set and accept her shortcomings. If she’s someone who can’t sit down to study for more than 30 minutes at a stretch, she needs to acknowledge that drawback and make a plan factoring in this aspect. Maybe she can take a short break every half an hour, with a reminder to herself that she needs to get back to study after that. And once she is able to do that, she can also try some concentration exercises to train her mind to sit in one place and focus on what she’s studying for a longer period. 

One of the most important things to factor in when setting a goal is knowing one’s skill set — the strengths as well as the weaknesses and accepting them as parts of you. 

The way to be more accepting

Acceptance of things needs us to be more mindful, which in turn can help us be more focused and goal-oriented. 

Acceptance-based treatments have shown to help people with chronic pain, anxiety, inability to quit smoking, high-stress jobs and burnout.  This may be due to the fact that as we become more accepting, we might not feel the need to avoid situations that cause us distress; we become open to seeking out new opportunities. This may lead to fewer negative thoughts and higher productivity. 

For example, X may not apply for a new job because he’s scared of being rejected. But Y, because he’s okay being rejected and can take it in his stride, might apply for the job and land it too! 

Again, a businessman who’s suffered a financial loss might feel very disheartened and dejected initially. But if he cannot accept this situation and his emotions at some point, he might end up feeling like a victim and lose out on other opportunities to turn his business around.

People often fear that by accepting, one is compromising. That is not true. However, at times, we tend to use acceptance to disguise our laziness, fears or our desire to not do a particular thing. Sometimes our mind feigns acceptance and makes us remain averse to a situation. That is passivity, rather than acceptance. 

That is why we need to be honest with ourselves about our true emotions; we need to be aware and mindful of what we are feeling. When one is more accepting, it’s possible that our priorities and drives change. Things that didn’t matter may become important, while those that meant a lot may not seem so anymore. When this happens, our ‘musts’ don’t hold us back anymore and we are free. 

Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners and practising psychotherapists. They are trained Family and Structural Constellation leaders