Neither beating yourself up about your prior addiction nor trying to ignore it will help recovery. But practicing acceptance as a mindset can.

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Photographs from left to right: Yoshiyoshi Hirokawa/Getty Images, OvochevaZhanna/Getty Images

You made a choice to select “alternate route” in navigating your life and embark on the road to recovery.

Treatment and therapy may have unpacked your substance use disorder as well as the reasons that led to the addiction in the first place. Now it’s time to lean into another part of this path to recovery: acceptance.

A 2020 review of research on acceptance and commitment therapy in treating substance use disorder defines acceptance as giving heed to the urges and symptoms associated with substance misuse rather than avoiding them, and doing the mental work to reduce those cravings.

In this way, paying attention to behaviors and taking responsibility in each moment is similar to the practice of mindfulness.

By accepting reality objectively and acknowledging you may benefit from some behavioral changes — without self-blame and judgment — study review authors observed that acceptance frees people up to pivot toward different actions more consistently in the future.

A 2013 study across 16 countries found degrees of recognition and acceptance of neurobiological conditions, including addiction, and endorsement of treatment were high.

The study also found self-stigma can be a barrier to recovery and community integration.

There’s a reason acceptance is the first step in popular types of recovery support groups, including 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Recognizing what you can change, what you can’t, and the difference between the two, as the Serenity Prayer counsels, is a cornerstone of acceptance.

As one 2017 study explains, the idea of using acceptance in recovery is predicated on the understanding that anxiety, disappointment, grief, illness, and pain are inescapable aspects of human life.

The therapeutic goal of acceptance, researchers note, is helping people adapt in healthy ways to these types of challenges by developing greater emotional intelligence and coping skills.

Denial is something many people may experience during the course of their substance use disorder. Confronting addiction can be difficult and bring up all kinds of emotions, including the same ones you might be trying to manage with substances.

Denial, and other defense mechanisms, may contribute to continued substance use despite negative consequences. While every person with a substance use disorder is different, denial can take one of the following forms:

  • Blame. Sometimes it may easier to point to another person or external factor for the reason for substance misuse. This could sound like, “My boss is so terrible, he drives me to drink.”
  • Concealing. This can look like masking evidence of substance use, like using mints to freshen breath or hiding substances.
  • Rationalizing or minimizing. You may downplay the severity of your substance use disorder, or offer excuses for substance use. This could sound like, “I only had two drinks today” or “I had a terrible week, I just want to take the edge off.”
  • Self-deception. You may tell yourself you don’t have a problem, that it’s not that bad, or that your friends and family are overreacting. This might sound like, “I don’t have a problem. I wish my family would stop asking about it.”

There are a number of ways to integrate acceptance into your daily life. While there’s no one-size-fits all approach, here are some themes, patterns, and practices to get started:

  • Recognize your own fallibility (and everyone else’s). Everyone has faults, including the friends and family who care about you. That doesn’t make them or you a bad person. It makes you all human.
  • Embrace humility. Some days will be harder than others. That’s normal, and all part of the journey.
  • Study mindfulness. Mindfulness is about experiencing the present moment without obsessing over the future or past. A 2018 review of research indicates that mindfulness can reduce substance misuse and cravings because it changes the internal, chemical processes of self-regulation and reward processing.
  • Practice mindfulness. Once you’ve learned about mindfulness, consider adopting a mindfulness meditation practice.

Examples of recovery acceptance in everyday life

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Integrating acceptance into your recovery isn’t a linear path. Be it a winding, rocky road or one slowed by bumps along the way, your recovery journey is yours.

Acceptance isn’t pass or fail, do or don’t do. It’s a practice, just like mindfulness, meditation, and self-care. Lean into your practice and walk it out confidently.