A couple of talks I had recently show how accepting oneself can serve as the first step toward healing emotional anguish. A son who is slipping into addiction was the subject of one chat about his fury. A man’s fear of an eye condition that is gradually causing blindness was the subject of the other.

As a psychotherapist, I am aware of the common myth that many alcoholics and addicts going through the Twelve Steps repeatedly spread, which holds that accepting oneself is the answer to every issue they have. They are alluding to Step One’s acknowledgement of their helplessness in the face of addiction. Their brains remained hijacked, and their behavior continued down a downhill spiral, regardless of how they changed the way they used drugs and/or alcohol. It was only when they accepted the physical reality of their brain’s inability to control the devastating effects of substance use that they found the willingness to change course, to abstain from substance use, and thereby regain physical, mental, and emotional health.

What exactly is acceptance? And how is it achieved?

Complete denial of addiction or encroaching blindness completely prevents acceptance of reality. Partial denial also exists when a person intellectually acknowledges reality but ignores its implications and its personal significance. Intellect and emotion are separate processes. Again, acceptance is blocked. Partial denial is especially common in response to trauma when emotions are shut down to avoid being totally overwhelmed.

Acceptance

Acceptance is essentially an emotional challenge. While we can make a logical decision to accept an unpleasant reality, this does not flip a switch to produce the emotional acceptance we desire. Full acceptance requires the maturity to embrace all emotional reactions without being overly identified with them. 

The problem with relinquishing denial is the inevitable flood of emotions that follow and the shift in identity that comes with a crack in our narcissistic pride. Let’s look first at the emotions that greet us when we open the door locked by denial. 

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD identified four stages of grief that sometimes follow the first stage of denial: bargaining, angerdepression, and acceptance.

Bargaining essentially comes from remnants of denial. During this stage, people make promises to God or bargain with the Devil to reverse their fate. For example, alcoholics often feel intense loss when they consider abstinence and try every means, including only drinking beer or only after 5:00 p.m., to not have to see themselves as an alcoholic. When bargaining does not work, anger at the unfairness of addiction or blindness raises its nasty head. This sense of unfairness is a remnant of a narcissistic wound that will be looked at below. Depression follows when anger exhausts itself and despair descends. This is the point when loss becomes real and permanent. A shift in identity is needed to move from depression to acceptance. A clear description of these stages of grief while going blind is contained in Pete Gustin’s YouTube video “I Was Bargaining for My Life.”

If denial is the first barrier to acceptance to be overcome, narcissism is the last. We all take pride in being in control. The ability to manage life becomes part of our core identity. Then, when our ability to control addiction, or control an addicted family member, or even the normal ability to manage the world using vision, fails, we suffer a huge blow to our pride. Our sense of self is diminished. We can no longer do what others seem capable of doing. Who are we when we can no longer drink with friends, are no longer capable of keeping our child safe, or perform any number of ordinary tasks that require vision? 

acceptance

To the extent our narcissistic needs demand we be fully as capable as all others, we will never achieve acceptance. The anger stage is fueled in part by the feeling we are important and special enough that we should be spared the unfairness of our loss.

Acceptance requires right-sizing ourselves, which is the opposite of our narcissistic drive. Sobriety for an addict means maturing beyond the need to base one’s identity on being able to drink or use drugs like so many others. Acceptance. Serenity while dealing with an addicted family member depends on stepping away from the narcissistic belief that we should be able to change how another person’s mind works. Acceptance. Living a meaningful life without sight requires developing a new level of patience to live successfully within narrower parameters. Acceptance.

Acceptance means living in the reality of who we really are and not in dreams of who we thought we would be, opening the door to all the feelings about not being special enough to avoid our fate, and simply getting on with the life we have with all the gratitude and awe being alive deserves.

Acceptance is so much easier said than done, but well worth the effort.

Why?

  1. Acceptance requires us to develop some humility, whether it’s about the state of the world, our neighbourhood, our colleagues, neighbours, or family members that upsets us. With acceptance, we acknowledge that we are not in charge of the show and that we are not the directors of the world. We are reminded to practice right-sizedness.
  2. Acceptance helps us to be aware of our experience as it actually is, rather than how we would like it to be. Acceptance does not necessarily imply that we agree with or condone a behavior or situation. This stance is sometimes referred to as life on life’s terms, or it is what it is.
  3. Acceptance helps us become better problem-solvers. Maybe we are loathe to accept that we have an addiction problem or that our job no longer fulfills us. However, once we acknowledge reality, rather than staying in denial or resistance, we are in a better position to consider our options and choose an appropriate action plan. After all, rejecting reality does not change reality.
  4. Acceptance supports our emotional and physical health. Resistance or denial can throw our equilibrium dramatically out of whack due to the stress we create when we say, through our thoughts, feelings, words, or behavior, that this is something I cannot stand. With acceptance, we are likely to have a lot more energy at our disposal because we no longer have to exert effort trying to avoid, deny, or push away our feelings or skirt a scary situation.
  5. Acceptance contributes to healthier relationships. Acceptance allows us to assert our own needs while also accepting that someone else may feel differently from us, for instance, and while understanding why they might feel that way. This approach paves the way for mutual respect and cooperation, as opposed to the my way or the highway perspective.
  6. Acceptance is one of the four options we have when facing a challenging situation. We can either leave something, change it, accept it, or stay miserable, as pointed out by psychologist Marsha Linehan, creator of dialectical behavioral therapy. Sometimes we are not in a position to alter something or walk away, so acceptance becomes our only viable choice if we want to live with some degree of contentment and equanimity.
  7. Accepting our feelings helps us to know ourselves better. Our feelings give us and other people valuable information about what is important to us, and trying to control our emotions can result in us being estranged from ourselves and not knowing who we are. Without accepting our feelings, we cut ourselves off from our emotional mind, which, together with our rational mind and Wise Mind, helps us make healthy decisions.
  8. Acceptance reduces the chances that feelings will resurface at a later time due to our not resolving the issue the first time around. It has been said that when you bury feelings, you bury them alive. Acknowledging our emotions without being overwhelmed by them or denying them is an important aspect of self-compassion, without which it can be almost impossible to live with ourselves.
  9. Acceptance is a form of forgiveness. To quote comedian Lily Tomlin, forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past. Whether its something that happened long ago, a current quandary, or a concern about the future, with acceptance, we are better equipped to let go of bitterness and its attendant suffering.
  10. Acceptance frees us from analytical paralysis. Often, we go round and round in circles, trying to figure out why something is the way it is. This can go on for years, with or without therapy. The first step to moving forward is acceptance of reality.
  11. Acceptance contributes to inner peace.When we “let it go” or “let it be,”  we relax into reality. We are more able to appreciate all aspects of a situation without judgment.
  12. Acceptance can be a gesture of gratitude. Instead of assuming the role of a victim and asking why this happened to me, we can choose to say (sometimes with gritted teeth): Thank you for this experience. I will learn what I can from it. I will be part of the solution.
  13. Acceptance strengthens us psychologically. If we avoid feelings or a situation, our courage muscle atrophies, and we become weaker over time. We also become more inclined to avoid things in the future, due to our avoidance becoming more and more of an engrained habit. When we accept something, we stand our ground, and we learn that we can indeed take what we thought we couldn’t take. This builds our courage, which we will need for the next challenge that comes along.

Acceptance is an assertion of control, in that we are choosing our attitude and our actions. Once we accept a situation, complete with the uncomfortable feelings this entails, we can shift our attention to what we need to do to live in accordance with our chosen values. We can let go of lamenting the problem and instead say to ourselves, Okay, this is how it is. I see the situation clearly, and I may not like it, but what am I going to do about it?

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