Accepting Acceptance as a Powerful Action
By Claudia Boers
I have something rather un-coach-like to confess. I’ve resisted the idea of acceptance as a powerful action for the longest time. Whenever I heard or read about acceptance being a way to find peace and take care of challenges in the most optimal way, it kind of made sense, but not really. Acceptance still felt more like a cop-out, some sort of passive rolling over, than a strategic course of action. Fortunately, after much thinking, reading and chatting about it - and more importantly, starting to practice it - I’ve finally gotten my head around the agency you gain by accepting something you can’t change. I wanted to share some of the key ideas that helped me get there in case you’re also struggling to accept acceptance.
Acceptance feels more relevant than ever right now
Every other article I read at the moment seems to offer some sort of acceptance-based theme. I think it’s because the complexity and uncertainty of our times is offering us an unparalleled invitation to learn to accept things that are beyond our control. We’re all being affected by so many issues outside our sphere of direct influence that one of the few productive actions we have within our power is practicing acceptance. If you’re still unconvinced by acceptance, then I appreciate that last statement might have a whiff of feebleness about it. This is the problem with acceptance - if you’re unacquainted with it, it can seem feeble.
Acceptance isn't feeble
Opposite reactions to acceptance - things like resentment or indignation - have always felt far more enticing and accessible to me, especially because I’m someone who typically springs to action as a way of resolving things. In comparison, “just” accepting something felt like I wouldn’t be doing anything. More satisfying to moan or even shout about something than meekly shrug and walk away, right? But actually no, what I’ve learnt is that if you can genuinely achieve it, acceptance is an infinitely more effective, powerful and liberating course of action. It is an action and it is a choice. I’d say it requires more effort than a less conscious response, making it by no means passive.
Acceptance doesn't mean you agree
It’s possible to accept something and still disagree with it. This is a powerful distinction for me. Acceptance simply means that you’re able to see things for what they are, whether this is the way someone’s behaved or something that’s happened. It’s about getting very clear on the things that cannot be changed. For example, perhaps you keep spotting your neighbour walking around the neighbourhood without a face mask on during the Covid crisis. You accept that you’ve seen her walking without a face mask on three times in the last week. You don’t agree with her behaviour because everything you’ve read indicates that wearing a mask prevents the spread of the virus. Accepting her behaviour doesn’t mean you can’t try to do something about it either. It simply means you see things for what they are so you don’t waste your energy resisting (or not accepting) the facts. So accepting is the first step in being able to take the most effective action possible within the parameters of what’s already happened. This is why it’s especially helpful when you don’t agree with what’s happened - it allows you to breathe out and be creative. In this example, your neighbour is more likely to respond positively if you aren’t seething with indignation while you share your concerns and ask her to wear a mask. Acceptance doesn’t guarantee you the outcome you want, but it places you in the best position possible to achieve it.
Resentment: like taking poison and waiting for your enemy to die
It’s not only hard to stop fighting the things you don’t want to accept, it’s also harmful. When you don’t accept something you stew in your own juices - quite literally. In resisting or resenting, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flood through our systems, and this isn’t healthy. Even if we express our non-acceptance to others in the form of anger or indignation, the toxic cocktail of negative thoughts, tense muscles and attritional chemical responses that accompany our resentment affects nobody but ourselves.
Acceptance enables us to take care of ourselves
Once you develop the ability to separate fact from opinion, and can clearly see the facts of the matter, you place yourself in the best position possible to move forward in an optimal way. You might not agree with your CEO insisting you return to work in person now that the lockdown is easing and many of your friends continue to work from home, but sadly, it’s a fact. In acceptance, you’re able to say to yourself, “it is what it is for now. Given this, what is within my power to enable?” This might be having a courageous conversation with your CEO in which you ask her to consider your working from home a certain number of days a week. Or perhaps you decide it’s time to investigate new job opportunities with companies whose teams will continue to work remotely. Whatever action you decide to take, accepting allows you to be resourceful in your approach. Ultimately, you’re better able to take care of the outcomes you want from a place of calm acceptance than resentment.
Technically, our view is no more 'right' than anybody else's
Whenever I feel really indignant about how “lazy” or “selfish” or “rude” somebody else has been, I remind myself that even though it feels as if mine is one hundred percent the right and proper and only way to do things, this sense of having the truth is how everybody else feels too. Most of us believe we are right about most things most of the time. It’s how people are wired to be. The problem is that we forget that this is how we are and don’t notice when we do it.
We’re all simply doing the best we can given how we’ve learnt to be. We adapt according to our life experiences. Our opinions and ways of doing things are a reflection of these adaptions. Remembering this can help us to respect others and accept the things they’ve done despite our differences.
Acceptance is a practice
Quite simply, being accepting of something requires practice. This happens through awareness and consciously applying the language and physical characteristics of acceptance. Someone in a mood of acceptance is easy to spot. Can you call to mind someone who moves and engages with ease and openness, and who also gets things done in a good way? A beautiful example is Nelson Mandela. Notice how there is often a sense of ease and a physically uplifted quality in people who are able to access acceptance.
How to practice acceptance
1. Get clear on the facts
The first step of acceptance involves getting very clear on the facts of the matter. This means separating our stories (perspectives) from the facts. This sounds easier than it is because as humans we are meaning making machines who constantly create stories about what we believe. We fill in the gaps so that the facts make sense to us according to our own perspectives. Let’s look at the example with your neighbour not wearing a face mask again. The facts are:
You’ve spotted your neighbour walking in public without a face mask three times in the last week.
The government guidelines are that everyone should wear a mask in public during the Covid crisis.
Your stories are:
How dare she? She’s being disrespectful to everybody else who is following the rules.
She’s selfish and inconsiderate and putting others at risk.
What makes her so special that she thinks she doesn’t have to wear a face mask when everybody else does?
She’s wrong, the mask-wearers are right.
I hope she gets a fine - she deserves one!
While there might be some discernment in these stories, they all say more about you and your view of the world than they do about your neighbour. The issue here is that you’re trapped in your stories and too busy fighting the facts to move beyond them in a good way.
2. Become aware of your reactions
As with the example above, a clear sign that you’re not in acceptance is an urge to:
Get even or hit back.
Punish and get revenge.
3. Notice and change your language
When we’re fighting something rather than accepting it, our language (spoken or thought) can signal what’s happening. Try to notice phrases like these:
How dare they.
It’s not fair.
They’re wrong, I’m right.
I’m going to make them pay.
I don’t deserve this.
The language of acceptance is distinctly different and, with awareness, can be adopted:
It is what is is.
What's done is done.
I don’t agree with what’s happened, but I recognise that it can’t be changed now.
These are the boundaries that currently define action.
It’s not what I would have chosen, but let’s find a good way forward.
4. Notice and adjust your posture and breathing
We embody whatever’s going on for us. The wonderful thing about this is that we can use our bodies (our posture and breathing) to shift the way we’re thinking or feeling when it isn’t serving us. When we’re resisting something, the physical clues that can alert us are:
Tense neck, jaw, shoulders and arms.
Leaning forward as if ready to strike out/hit back.
Frowning or squinting.
Quick, shallow breathing.
Voice loud or high pitched.
By mindfully adjusting our posture and breathing and paying attention to finding a sense of physical ease, we can shift our experience. I encourage you not to take my word for it, but to try it for yourself. See how your thoughts and mood change by applying the following:
Shoulders square and relaxed.
Arms loosely by the side.
Legs in line and relaxed.
Breathing even and relaxed.
It’s not always comfortable, but there’s peace in acceptance
The penny dropped for me when somebody said that acceptance doesn’t mean transcending sadness or discomfort and floating away in a happy bubble. It doesn’t enable some magical state where everything is beautiful and suffering serves simply as a portal into bliss. Acceptance means we can see, appreciate and connect with all the aspects of ourself and our life. What could be more compelling than that? It’s not easy facing unpleasant facts, but paradoxically, there’s comfort in being able to see things objectively rather than being at their mercy. Once we find that understanding and peace, we are free to move forward.
Food for thought
Is there an area of your life in which you’re fighting the facts?
What is continuing to fight the facts preventing for you?
What would it be like to acknowledge that there are things happening that you don’t agree with and which are beyond your control?
What would accepting the facts enable you to focus on instead?
Claudia an ontological life and leadership coach who helps people learn how to become their own best resource. If you'd like to have a conversation with her and find out more about developing new perspectives, please get in touch via email or find out more on her website: