I’ve heard many people tell me they have accepted something that’s happened, whether that’s a loss, a traumatic childhood, significant change in their health, or something else.
But what I’ve found is, just because you say something verbally or want to accept it, doesn’t mean that acceptance has actually happened—especially if you’re angry with yourself or are inundated by the sheer magnitude of your emotions. As well, just because you finally connected the dots as to how then led to now, doesn’t mean you are free of it.
Because acceptance is— as clichéd as it sounds— a journey with multiple chapters and facets. It can be one of the most painful but also transformative things you’ll ever undertake. Think, metamorphosis.
Ahead, let’s break down what acceptance really looks like, and how to more fully accept the things that have happened to you.
What acceptance isn’t
First, it’s important to understand what acceptance isn’t.
- Acceptance isn’t cerebral. Just because you can articulate it logically doesn’t mean you are not in the 4Fs of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Sometimes, we articulate because the verbal pathway bypasses the trauma re-experiencing pathways, and that feels better. But that doesn’t mean that we are okay, because emotions live in our body. In the same way, just because you recite a mantra like “I am not scared, I am confident” doesn’t change the reality that your legs are jelly and your palms are sweaty. Even if there are times you feel okay, that doesn’t discount all the many other times when it gets to you.
- Acceptance isn’t wallowing. Acceptance isn’t caving in, letting yourself sabotage or self-destruct. It is not a free pass to hurt yourself by engaging in unsafe behaviors you’ll regret like impulsive shopping or risky sex, or to give up. Acceptance is saying, “I am here now, even if it sucks, and I commit to getting myself out slowly.” Because you also didn’t become this person overnight.
- Acceptance isn’t linear. You’ll vacillate back and forth; there are different aspects to accepting what’s happened. Sometimes you won’t accept the very human experiences you are having. And sometimes you’ll feel sorry for yourself. At others, you’ll want to champion yourself.
- Acceptance isn’t forced. Acceptance isn’t something you can force upon yourself, like hitting a button, because you’re not a cyborg. In the same way, think about your motivations for acceptance— it is not about making you a more enlightened person, being grateful for what happened, or about forgiving someone. It really is about helping yourself to heal, and being grateful for your ability to come through.
The elements of true acceptance
Acceptance is a messy process. Nestled within this mess is color and freedom. What that means is that you don’t have to go through a particular stage or kind of acceptance just because someone else has. In other words, you heal at your own time and targets.
Some facets of acceptance might include:
- That it’s not (all) your fault. Particularly when things happen to us as children, we tend to blame ourselves as a way of exerting control in our heads. Except, this makes us prime candidates for self-castigation all the time for everything.
- That some people did things that contributed to the situation.
- That the perfect future you envisioned— especially what you read about or see in others’ lives— may never happen to you. For instance, this toxic person may never love you or be that person you want them to be. Or with a certain illness or loss, your life will change forever.
- That you’re in some kind of liminal purgatory stage, where the old worlds have died, and the new ones haven’t been born yet. And you’re not sure when or if the new ones will ever materialize.
- The fact that you’ve changed, and you may view the world in a different way. (Though, while a crisis makes us consciously see the world as a dangerous place, the future as not good, and that bad things can happen to us— you can work to undo that, because you don’t need to live that way.)
- That you have intense and painful feelings, and sometimes your body, relationships, and functioning pay the price.
- That maybe there is no justice that will happen in your situation.
- That you’re not there at full acceptance yet, or not there everyday.
How to help yourself accept
When we wrestle with a situation we cannot accept, we are putting ourselves in a state of fight-or-flight, and it can feel incredibly toxic as our energy gets incinerated in droves.
Conversely, as you help yourself accept, you support yourself to heal.
1. Expect physical shifts.
As holistic psychologist Nicole LePera, Ph.D., once said, “Your nervous system is going back into a parasympathetic state after years of fight or flight. Expect to sleep a lot. Eat whenever you’re hungry. Let go of what you ‘should’ be doing and let your body heal itself.” And as my friend and therapist Benita Scott has wisely taught me over the years, sometimes you will burp and yawn more, or use the bathroom more as you heal. That is a good sign that energy is moving in your body, because we store emotions in our body.
2. Listen to your emotions.
You will feel all sorts of emotions— good, bad, and neutral, and chances are, you might judge some or all of them. But emotions are just data telling us what we need more or less of in our lives. And the first step to working with our emotions is to acknowledge their presence, as allies that help us be wiser. If you’re anxious? That’s because you may need a plan in the face of hazy uncertainty. Depressed? Maybe your body is telling you to rest so you can conserve your energy. Angry? Perhaps there’s an injustice that’s happened to you, that you can protect yourself from. And if you’re feeling joyful? These are the things you can do to help yourself live this one precious life of yours deeply.
And as you feel these emotions, name them without judging, before taking three deep breaths to reset your brain, so that your wiser prefrontal cortex comes back online.
3. Use the 3 P’s.
If these emotions (and generally, life) feel way too overwhelming, you can try positive psychologist Martin Seligman’s 3Ps:
- Is this permanent? (And how can I make this even more temporary?)
- Is this personal? (What about this has nothing to do with me; and how can I make this more objective?)
- Is this pervasive? (Can I keep this in one area of my life without feeling doom and gloom about all areas of my life?)
4. Engage in active recovery.
For people who are Type A and identify as highly perfectionist, maybe you can only do that much sitting and resting before you drive yourself bonkers. That is okay. In sports psychology, we subscribe to the use of “active recovery,” meaning there are days we use lighter activity to help our muscles to grow and recover. Otherwise, we never get to the next level. So active recovery might look like a brisk walk every two days instead of running 10km every day. Think about what your equivalent of active recovery is for you.
5. Create your own story.
And then, there is that part about “facing the world.” We exist as part of human society, and people have questions. So here’s where it gets exciting— you get to tell your own story. (Because if you don’t, someone else will do it for you, and you’re not gonna like it.)
So imagine yourself six months from now, when you have reached X% acceptance (the number could be anywhere from 60-100), what would your story be if someone asked?
Here are some questions to help you:
- What is the story, in one line?
- What is the story in 3-5 lines, for people who should know more?
- What further questions will you answer, and what will you graciously say you are not answering?
- And, who will be the people who will receive the one-liner, the paragraph, and the longer version of the story?
6. See your situation with fresh eyes.
I’ve also learnt that emotional maturity is the ability to revisit decisions I’ve made when younger, as my current self and being open to know that I would have done some things differently. To be able to sit with new insights, while knowing your younger self did the best they could, is a sign that you can accept your past.
7. Be gentle with yourself.
All in all, be as gentle as you can with yourself. If you find that hard, get a picture of your childhood self, and look at them. They deserve all the kindness, protection, and championing you can give.
What else you might experience after acceptance
Occasionally, stray vestiges might pop up, and you might feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you might see it as a repeated lesson, that you’re running into a particular situation or person. But people and situations will always exist, whether or not you have accepted what happened to you. And so maybe it isn’t about you, but rather, a fact of life. Or as Danielle LaPorte pens it so beautifully in her book How To Be Loving, “We can choose to let someone be who they are for us today, not a hologram of yesterday’s issue.”
And even then, it doesn’t mean you have to embrace such a person or situation to prove to yourself you’ve healed. Personally, I dislike people when they are high, rowdy, and drunk. I never liked putting myself in such situations prior to that, but they’ve made me feel especially unsafe in the aftermath of a previous narcissistic relationship. So aware of my needs for safety, I choose to disengage from people when I see them drink a bit too much, and I generally exit such situations anyway because I don’t like staying out too long to drink either.
Bottom line is, I don’t judge these people for what they do, nor myself for feeling and responding the way that I do. It’s the same way I prefer to sit on the aisle seat when flying and don’t judge myself for that.
Sometimes, you may still feel retriggered, and that’s okay. In these situations, ask yourself, what’s going on in your environment? Is a place or thing tarred with a bad memory, and do you want to reclaim it? If so, you can start creating better memories with safe and good people, or with yourself.
Or, are you constantly being exposed to people who make it hard to feel at peace? For instance, are you often seeing toxic family members out of guilt or obligation, and so keep walking on eggshells? Or did you recently run into a naysayer who shamed you for what you went through— that you were stupid, naive, or immature? In the same way that we don’t deliberately put our lives in danger or discomfort— e.g. we will walk away from dark alleyways or streets filled with bins— we can make these exposures temporary.
Sometimes you may accept what’s happened to you, while still being exposed to triggers in your environment. For instance, you’re still navigating job search after being laid off, being embroiled in a court case with your toxic ex, or finding your new rhythm in a new country or overall health.
And then one day you realize the background factors have changed, and you can breathe again. And maybe you’ve forgotten what it’s like to breathe. And you realize that from the ashes, a new person has been born.
The thing about acceptance is that there are multiple iterations, and when you feel disheartened, zoom out at the wider picture and honor your growth.
If I were to sum up acceptance in a phrase, it would be the biggest bit of wisdom I hold closest to my heart, the Chinese phrase 既来之则安之. Put simply, those six words mean, “Since I’ve already found myself here, what can I do to acknowledge I’m here now, and what can I do with this moving forward?”
Take heart that there are many ways you can do that.