Working With Reality
Acceptance Means Not Accelerating or Avoiding
By: Charity Simpson
I have heard many metaphors used to describe the experience of the changing times in COVID-19. Some have compared it to the plague where all people were impacted and desperate for relief. Some have likened it to a hurricane that we were able to see creeping upon us before making landfall and upending everything in its reach. And still others have talked about the experience and stages of grief, where we cycle through and frequently revisit the stages of shock and denial, anger, bargaining and guilt, and depression all still eagerly awaiting our arrival at acceptance and new life. What I have noticed in all of these metaphors is that none of them are things we typically look forward to but all of them are things that we must accept, things that we have seemingly little to no influence over because they are largely beyond our control.
So, what does acceptance mean and how do we accept that which is beyond our control? If it were so easy, we would all be doing it instead of searching for ways around it. As I have studied grief and trauma and worked with people trying to accept the unacceptable, I have come to think of acceptance as the place of equanimity that resides between accelerating and avoiding something. Equanimity can be defined in many ways: “a place of mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain”, “openheartedness”, “a sense of equilibrium”. All of these imply a state of accepting reality for what it is, without resistance or judgment.
So often, when it comes to times of discomfort and inevitable pain, our response leads to a sense of suffering. I have heard it said before that pain is inevitable while suffering is optional. To me, this means that pain is a natural part of our experience while suffering is a state of mind that we create. One formula is pain x resistance = suffering. With this framework, the best way to avoid suffering is to not resist pain but instead accept it. This doesn’t mean that we resign ourselves to defeat or complacency. Rather, it means that when we encounter inevitable pain and discomfort, rather than resist it, which only increases our experience of suffering, we accept it and learn how to live with it so that we do not suffer.
To help with this, I like to think of the AAA model detailed below.
The AAA Model
Accelerating our pain and discomfort happens when we become consumed by it and feed it in various ways. This occurs when we keep the narrative in our head going about our pain, adding to the storyline and getting carried away with premature conclusions about it. Strong indicators that we are in a state of acceleration are when we are thinking in absolutes (always, every, never); getting carried away in hypotheticals (If this hadn’t happened, then I would be able to do this; If this happens, then here’s what I’ll miss out on; Because this is happening, now I’ll have to worry about this); comparing ourselves to others or former times (I wish I were as lucky as her; I used to be better at dealing with these things; I remember when things weren’t so bad); and making judgments about our current state of affairs (It’s unfair that we have to deal with this; This is the worst time of my life; Things will never be as good as they once were). If you find yourself engaging in these common habits, then perhaps focusing on acceptance of the here and now could benefit you.
Acceptance is when we practice mindfulness, recognizing what is for what it is, nothing more and nothing less. Rather than lament the ways in which we are unable to change our situation, we instead focus our energy on how we can adapt to and better navigate the current circumstances. As hard as it is to do, my clients know that I am a fan of working with reality rather than against it. When we are working against our reality, avoiding it as detailed below, we create resistance which we now know creates an ongoing state of suffering and prolongs our pain. Rather than resist our pain or become consumed by it through acceleration described above, we can learn to accept our reality and practice embracing our present situation so that we can make it the best one possible.
Avoiding our pain is exactly what it sounds like. So often, we try to ignore our discomfort by distracting ourselves endlessly and trying to pretend that things are fine when they are far from it. We act as though we have the magical thinking of a child and can simply will something into or out of existence. Pema Chodron, a renowned meditation instructor, tells her students that a feeling will not leave you until it has served its purpose. Therefore, ignoring the presence of a feeling or reality doesn’t change the nature of it. It simply prolongs its presence as it prevents it from serving its intended purpose. Only when we embrace the here and now, with all its obstacles and challenges, and stop avoiding the discomfort of what is, can we truly be free from the forces by which we feel bound.