At one time or another, most of us have said, “I can’t stand this!”, or “this is just not fair!” All too often, life delivers situations that we really don’t like, but we can’t change. It may come in the form of a serious illness, a cheating spouse, or a job lay-off. The behaviors of other people also often fall into the category of things we’d like to change, but can’t. We may really try to change our child, our spouse, our mother, or our boss, but it’s just not possible.
There are some realities that we just can’t think, beg, or fight our way out of. We feel stuck, even trapped. What are we left to do? We must accept. “No!” you say, “I can’t just accept it! It’s too painful to accept”! “I won’t give up!” But being unable to accept life on life’s terms is what really leads to pain and suffering. It’s the struggle that hurts. You might argue that accepting equals passively giving up, but in fact the very opposite is true. Being able to squarely face and accept the reality of a situation is the first step toward understanding, clarity, and even change. Accepting and tolerating realities that you cannot, or chose not to, change is the real path to freedom and peace.
The Pain of Denial
When we deny reality, we are setting ourselves up for pain and suffering. Denying something is the opposite of accepting it. In psychology, denial is simply the state of not accepting something that is sad or painful, but is real (Merriam Webster, 2014). However, we can’t say that denial is entirely a bad thing, and it does have a purpose. The state of denial is actually quite normal. When very painful things happen, it’s natural to deny them, at first. It’s normal to want to avoid and retreat from things that make us feel vulnerable, or threaten our sense of safety or control.
For example, in her book On Death and Dying (1969), Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified denial as the first step in grieving and eventually accepting a painful loss. Losses like the death of a loved one, the break-up of a relationship, the loss of job, or the loss of functioning due to a serious injury or illness can all trigger a grief reaction, which includes denial. In the sort-term, denial works as a defense mechanism to protect us from something too painful to process. However, it’s important to work through and move beyond denial to eventual acceptance. According to the Mayo Clinic (2014), these are some signs that you may be trapped in denial, and struggling to reach acceptance:
- You refuse to acknowledge a stressful problem or situation.
- You avoid facing the facts of the situation. This can take a number of forms, including distracting yourself with other activities, or numbing yourself with alcohol or drugs.
- You don’t want to talk about your feelings or the painful situation. You may insist that everything is fine, and it’s not really that bad.
- People are telling you that you’re in denial, “sticking your head in the sand”, or “not facing the facts”.
- You minimize the consequences of the situation.
- You are feeling excessively stressed and anxious.
- You become very upset when you think about the painful subject, or when someone else brings it up.
- You keep doing the same things to try to solve a problem. You are spinning your wheels, and getting nowhere (Mayo Clinic, 2014).
If you are having trouble acknowledging painful realities in your life, acceptance and real change and healing can’t happen. It takes courage to face painful situations and feelings, but it is the only way to grow, heal, and move forward.
The Freedom of Acceptance
To reach the peace and freedom of acceptance and end the fight with reality, you must find your way to genuine acceptance. The term “Radical Acceptance” is often used in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a form of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan. This term implies total acknowledgement and acceptance of what is, regardless of whether we like it, or want desperately for it to be different. Radical Acceptance of reality doesn’t happen right away, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It must be done over and over again, sometimes numerous times in a single day (Linehan, 1993). We know that denial is the opposite of acceptance, and that we need to move toward acceptance to find peace, but how can we begin to do that? According to psychologist, Christopher Germer (2009), reaching true acceptance and peace is a process, and an important part of the process is acknowledging and accepting our own feelings. The path to acceptance often happens in this way:
Step 1: Aversion: We instinctively respond to uncomfortable feelings with resistance, avoidance, or rumination (repetitively reviewing a problem to solve it). You’ll do anything to escape the feelings or situation, or you lay awake at night going over and over it in our mind, without coming to any solutions.
Stage 2: Curiosity: When aversion and avoidance doesn't work, you may become curious about your problem. You are very gradually starting to see the issue with more objectivity and clarity. You want to learn more about it; even though you may not like it and you feel anxious. However, when you become curious, you may find your anxiety decreases. You are starting to try to find meaning and learn from the experience.
Stage 3: Tolerance: In this stage, you begin to be able to tolerate and endure the pain you feel about a situation, even though you still wish it would disappear. Tolerating means staying with the feeling or situation, rather than avoiding and resisting reality.
Stage 4: Allowing: As your resistance begins to disappear, you can begin letting feelings come and go—much like the tides come in and go out again. You realize that no feeling lasts forever and you’re able to acknowledge feelings and really feel them. You allow reality into your awareness, without pushing it away.
Stage 5: Friendship: In this stage, you value and appreciate your feelings. They are not something to be avoided anymore. It's not that you want to feel upset or sad, but you can be grateful for the benefits that a situation brings to your life. Until you reach this stage, it can be very hard to see any benefit to a painful situation (Germer, 2009).
It can be difficult to be patient with yourself while you go through the process of reaching acceptance of painful situations and feelings. There will be times when you want to retreat back into denial and start fighting with reality again, and that’s okay. You can always come back to choosing to accept. It’s important to remember that acceptance does not mean we like or approve of something, it just means we acknowledge it.
For example, if our child is diagnosed with a learning disability, we may not like this. We may even go into denial for a period of time. We tell ourselves it’s a mistake, and the testing is wrong. But if we aren’t able to move through denial to acceptance, we may refuse the help our child needs to be successful. Acceptance helps us overcome paralysis, and enables us to take constructive action to effectively cope with painful situations.
Acceptance Opens the Door for Change
It may seem strange and counterintuitive to think of acceptance as a pathway to change. If we’ve accepted something, we’ve decided we can’t change it, right? Yes and no. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), clients learn that they can accept and acknowledge a situation, while also working to change it (Linehan, 1993). A good example of a situation that must be accepted to be changed is weight loss. If you are in denial about being overweight and unhealthy, you are not likely to take steps to change the situation. On the other hand, if you have learned that your spouse has a terminal illness, you cannot change that painful reality. Grieving and finding acceptance is the only way to really move forward. You can’t change the situation, but you can change your experience of it. When we fight with reality and remain stuck in denial, we experience more suffering. Accepting a situation is moving toward healing and learning.
Sometimes, we get caught up in judging ourselves, people, and situations, which is another way of denying reality. When we judge something as good or bad, we are deciding that it should or should not exist. We tell ourselves, “this is awful and should not be happening”, but it is happening. Letting go of our opinions and judgments about a situation or person allows us to become more neutral and objective. If we can move through denial and emotions like fear and anger, we can better see solutions and opportunities. We can see reality for what it is, rather than what we would like to see.
In every moment we always have the choice to lean in and accept, or to retreat into denial and avoidance. It’s not easy, and takes conscious effort. When you’re stuck and unable to accept a situation or feeling, it can be helpful to talk with a counselor to gain perspective and process thoughts and feelings. We can love and accept ourselves and other people while also wanting to change and grow. The key is acceptance. Healing and peace come when we allow ourselves to really see and feel reality. Only then, can we see the possibility for change and the lessons in painful situations.
Denial. (2014). Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/denial
Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion: Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. New York:Guilford Press.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.
Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
Mayo Clinic. (2014). Denial: When it helps, when it hurts. Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/adult-health/in-depth/denial/art-20047926