In life, there are things we can change…and things we cannot. An example of the latter is what’s happening outside, right now. Is it hot or cold? Raining buckets or dry and sunny? By and large, we all know that we can’t control the weather, so we adapt. We celebrate a gorgeous day with a picnic or protect ourselves on a horrible day by closing the windows and staying indoors. If it’s hot, we can peel off some clothing…and if it’s brisk, we can layer up.
Hold that analogy in mind, suggested Daily Health News life coach Lauren Zander, because there’s wisdom in how we handle the weather that we can apply to the rest of our lives—our health, relationships, careers, finances, etc.
Zander and I sat down recently to discuss “the art of acceptance,” and as you might guess, she had an unusual perspective on it. While acknowledging that we all must learn to accept certain sad and painful realities (and the fact that some of us have more than our fair share), Zander isn’t a fan of resignation. “What many people call acceptance, I call ‘being dead’ to certain things. Not acknowledging the truth, or not admitting to your own role, or pretending you have no choices and just giving up—those reactions are not acceptance,” Zander said. “Acceptance means understanding that even when terrible things happen, as they do to everyone, you can still make empowering choices. Your attitude is the key.”
To truly practice the art of acceptance, you need to…
Be truthful with yourself about how you feel. Whatever it is that you are feeling powerless about—getting a bad diagnosis from your doctor, having a mentally ill family member, hating how your muscles just aren’t what they used to be—it’s important not to pretend that you don’t hate it (because that’s denial, not acceptance) or to get stuck thinking, “I wish this weren’t happening” (because it is happening). Instead, find a way to get in touch with your true emotions. Zander suggested that you just start writing about the situation and keep going until your words take you to the heart of the matter. At that point, if you need an emotional release—taking out your frustrations on a punching bag or having a good cry—go ahead. Afterward, you’ll be better able to figure out where to go from here.
Claim your responsibility. Many situations that people label as being entirely beyond their control actually are not, Zander said. To make positive changes, you first need to acknowledge whatever responsibility you may have for the situation. Examples: Suppose your doctor says that you have diabetes. That’s hard—but he’s been telling you for several years that you were prediabetic and needed to make significant lifestyle changes…which you didn’t do. Or suppose that you lost your job, and you have no savings. Yes, the economy is rough—but have you been as responsible as you should have been about your finances?
The idea here isn’t to castigate yourself, but rather to accept the degree to which your own action or inaction played a role. This allows you to see that you do have a measure of control. “People have this way of speaking about themselves as if they were like the weather, as if who they are and how they act is something they cannot change,” Zander said. “But the fact is, you can change yourself.” For instance, you can start now to make the lifestyle changes that will help you manage your diabetes well…you can educate yourself now about personal finances and draw up a realistic budget.
Stop trying to change other people. Why? Because it doesn’t work. For instance, suppose your son is a deadbeat dad who doesn’t accept financial responsibility for his children, and the situation upsets you. You need to understand that you cannot force him to pay up and that you don’t get to dictate how he lives his life. What you can do is accept that your son is an irresponsible jerk and that your grandchildren need help—then figure out what role you want to take in the situation. If this means accepting that you are the one who must make sure that there is food in the house and that the kids have school supplies, so be it.
But don’t stay mad. Zander said, “Hanging onto your anger is like building a memorial to your wish that the other person would behave ‘properly.’ To let go of the wish and the upset it causes you, you have to accept that the other person is what he is, and then do what is right for you. You don’t get to pick the situation, but you do get to pick your attitude—and that’s what gives you power.”
Combine acceptance with integrity. Getting to this point requires a close examination of your core values, what you most strongly believe about right and wrong. No one can figure that out for you, but to get the wheels turning, Zander suggested pondering the following scenarios…
- Your father is an active alcoholic. He loves you and your kids. In accepting both those facts, what level of involvement do you allow him to have in your family life? There’s a difference between not letting him drive home after he’s had dinner (and the wine he brought) with you and his grandkids at your house…and not ever inviting him to dinner. Do you recognize that difference?
- Your sister has dementia. She’s in a nursing home an hour away. How often do you need to go see her? She won’t remember whether you visited or not—but that’s not the important issue. What matters is who you want to be. If you’re struggling to figure that out, ask yourself what level of integrity you’d want your own loved ones to demonstrate if you were the one with dementia.
- You are diagnosed with advanced cancer. You don’t know what treatment will be like or whether it will succeed. The goal is to accept that the cancer is real and let go of the wish that it would just disappear—so you can devote your energies to figuring out how you want to live in whatever amount of time you have left. What relationships do you want to repair, what dreams do you want to achieve, what lasting legacy of good do you want to leave behind in the world?
Zander summed it up like this. “Acceptance means to stop making excuses or wasting energy wishing for what can’t be, and instead to figure what you can change—which is your own attitudes and actions in handling the situation. Remember, you can choose to have a great day in the worst possible weather, to stop pining for the sun and go play in the rain. That is how to practice the art of acceptance.”