Pain is inevitable — it’s part of being human. But by practicing acceptance we can avoid some needless suffering.
All of us experience pain. It might stem from losing a loved one, losing a job, ending a relationship, being in an accident, or undergoing any kind of trauma.
Often, however, we add to this pain and create suffering, Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, writes in her book “Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life.“
In the book, Van Dijk shares insights on validating our emotions, getting through a crisis, and improving our relationships. She focuses on dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills, a therapeutic technique developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, PhD.
By practicing acceptance, we may be able to relieve some of the pain brought by life’s challenges.
According to Van Dijk, a mental health therapist in Ontario, Canada, we create suffering by not accepting reality. For instance, we say things like:
- “It’s not fair”
- “Why me?”
- “This shouldn’t have happened”
- “I can’t bear it!”
Our instinct is to fight the pain, she writes. Normally, this instinct is protective. But in the cases of pain, it can backfire. We might avoid our pain, pretend it isn’t present, or turn to unhealthy behaviors. We might ruminate about our pain without doing anything about it. In some cases, we turn to substances to forget the pain.
Instead, the key is to accept your reality.
“Acceptance simply means that you stop trying to deny your reality and you acknowledge it instead,” Van Dijk writes.
Acceptance does notmean that you approve of a situation or that you don’t want it to change. Acceptance is not a synonym for forgiveness, either. It doesn’t have to do with anyone else.
“It’s about reducing your own suffering,” Van Dijk writes. So if you have experienced abuse, you don’t have to forgive the person who hurt you. Acceptance means acknowledging that the abuse occurred.
“Acceptance is simply about whether or not you want to continue spending so much time and energy experiencing all of these painful emotions about a situation,” she writes.
Forgiveness is optional, according to Van Dijk. But acceptance is necessary for moving forward.
Acceptance also doesn’t mean giving up or being passive about a situation. For instance, Van Dijk shares the example of a woman who wanted to have kids, but her partner did not. She was hoping that he’d change his mind. After two years together, she realized that she had to accept the reality of her partner’s decision. And she had to decide whether to stay in the relationship or find someone who wanted the same things she did.
As Van Dijk writes, “We can’t act to change things until we recognize them as they really are.”
Acceptance is powerful. Once we accept reality, our anger tends to decrease. The painful situation loses the power it has over us. While the pain doesn’t go away, the suffering does.
Here’s a list of additional tips and insights on how to accept reality from Van Dijk’s book:
Make a commitment to yourself to accept the reality of a certain situation
Try not to judge yourself for not being able to accept your reality. It’s natural for our thoughts to return to this place.
Instead, gently notice when you find yourself fighting back and saying things like, “But it’s not fair.”
Like learning any new skill, it takes time, practice, and patience. Acceptance doesn’t happen overnight. More painful situations will take more time and practice.
Refocus on acceptance
Along the way, try reminding yourself that you’re choosing acceptance and why this is important to you. You might say to yourself, “It is what it is. I decided to work on accepting this situation because I don’t want to have this power over me anymore. I’m going to keep working on accepting this.”
Make your own list of things you’d like to accept
Start small with situations that are less painful. This helps you practice and builds your confidence.
For instance, you might start with accepting that you’re stuck in traffic, standing in a long line, or have to change your plans because of bad weather — and go from there.
Break the situation down
Try breaking overwhelming situations into smaller pieces that are easier to accept.
Focus on the present
Avoid accepting something in the future, such as “you’ll never have a long-term relationship.” We have no idea what the future holds. Instead, you might work on accepting that you’re currently not in a relationship (if that’s bringing you pain).
Don’t try to accept judgments
Van Dijk worked with a woman who said she was having a hard time accepting that she is a “bad person.” She came to this conclusion because she used drugs and couldn’t accept help from loved ones. But what she really needed to work on accepting were these realities — not the judgment of supposedly being a bad person.
Emotional pain is part of all our lives. However, we create needless suffering when we don’t accept reality. We stop ourselves from making healthy changes.
When we practice acceptance, we let ourselves move on, we open the door to freedom, and we take steps to improve our lives. Acceptance can be hard — but it’s something we can practice.