What does it mean to ‘accept’?

‘Acceptance’ is a buzzword that’s going around at the moment, but what does it actually mean, and how can ‘accepting’ the world around us improve our mental health and wellbeing?

The most important thing to remember is that ‘acceptance’ does not mean you support what is happening, or that you will simply resign yourself to it. Acceptance is an energy that says, “OK, this is what’s happening, this is where I’m at now. What’s next?” It’s a matter of not fighting reality.

Every day things happen to us that we can’t control or change, and this can understandably cause us a lot of pain and suffering. But what is really causing our suffering: is it the thing that happened, or is it our resistance to it? Mostly, it comes down to resistance.

A useful formula to remember: Suffering = pain x resistance. It comes in handy when you want to determine if you’re not accepting the present moment, thereby creating suffering.

Let me explain. Imagine you’re running late for work (you’re on your lunch break) and you’re waiting in line at the supermarket. The person in front of you is talking on their mobile phone, which is clearly causing them to scan the items much slower than they otherwise would! It’s driving you nuts.

Here, you’ve got a little bit of pain because this person is undoubtedly being a bit oblivious, perhaps even a bit selfish. But you’ve got a truck load of suffering because of the way you’re fighting with the reality of the situation. In your head you’re at war!

I realise I’m using the term ‘pain’ very loosely here, but any grievance or annoyance is a type of pain. Pain is inevitable. It comes and it goes. Suffering, however, is extended. It’s caused by the stories in our head and our lack of acceptance.

Unfortunately, many people confuse the concept of ‘acceptance’ with passive resignation. Acceptance does not mean that you cannot or should not take action. It simply means that you take action from a place that is driven by logic and presence, rather than the part of you that is driven purely by emotion.

Acceptance is not:

  • A passive ‘putting up’ with things
  • Giving up or giving in
  • Denial of a difficult event
  • Saying what has happened is OK when it’s clearly not OK.

So here, in our supermarket story, whether we are accepting reality or whether we are fighting reality, we still only have a couple of reasonable choices: we can ignore the situation, we can give them the evil side-eye, or we can ask the person to get off their phone.

There’s no right or wrong answer here, it’s up to the individual. The point is, holding resentment and anger doesn’t make the rude grocery shopper move any faster. I wish it did. Sadly, it just makes you, the innocent bystander, feel drained.

The brain uses 20% of the body’s energy resources, so is it any wonder why a lack of acceptance makes us feel so buggered?

If we think of our previous example and imagine the grocery shopping situation caused us 10 units of pain and we were resisting the situation with 10 units of our own energy. Using the formula: suffering = pain x resistance, we know that we’ll end up with 100 units of suffering!

That’s a lot of wasted energy, and that wasted energy has consequences on our mood and our behaviour later in the day.

Lack of control is an unavoidable part of life. To practise acceptance, we need to be willing to pay attention to how we feel within our bodies without self-judgement, allow the feeling to be there, and then to take action. By first accepting whatever is happening, or however we feel, we can then choose how to respond, rather than just reacting.

Studies on acceptance

A 2019 study shows that acceptance is a vital ingredient when it comes to mindfulness practises to reduce stress. In this study, researchers randomly assigned 137 stressed adults of various ages and ethnicities to one of three programs: (1), an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course which incorporated instructions on how to pay attention and accept what’s arising in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way; (2), an MBSR course without instructions on acceptance; and (3) the third group did no course.

The people who took the full MBSR course with the instructions on acceptance had a significantly steeper improvement than the other two groups.

Developing Your Acceptance Muscle

Like any skill, acceptance takes time and practice. It isn’t a magical fix; it won’t completely take the pain away. But you will at least stop adding to that pain by exhausting yourself trying to change what’s out of your control.

By bringing this valuable skill into your life, you will be far better equipped to deal with life’s difficulties, and to live a life aligned with your values rather than a life dictated by your emotions. Knowing that we can take care of our inner world is empowering, and helps us to be better able to deal with that which is out of our control.

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