We continue a series on how to effectively manage emotions, so that we can engage more thoughtfully in relationship. All of the skills we discuss are designed to support the ultimate goal of wisdom (see post titled, “Emotion Regulation 1.0”).
For several posts, we looked at various awareness skills, and then a few days ago, we began looking at distress tolerance skills. Today brings us to our final distress tolerance skill: radical acceptance.
Okay, accepting reality as it is may sound like it would add distress, rather than diminish it. The whole reason we’re distressed in the first place is because we don’t like reality the way it is, and we want it to change. But when we accept reality as it is, we find that a host of other options opens up to us that we couldn’t see when we had a tight grip on making reality into our fantasy.
Is Yours A Wonderful Life?
Remember the frustrated businessman, George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life? George experiences a devastating business setback and wants to end it all until he imagines how badly his town would have fared if he had never been born. In the end, he realizes that the greatest gift is right at home, making him “the richest man in town.”
Sure, It’s A Wonderful Life is idyllic, but the classic holiday film makes us consider life from a different angle, and helps us appreciate what we have in the present. Some people find that keeping a “gratitude journal” helps to remind them of what they do have when life throws its curve balls. Reminding yourself on a regular basis, perhaps daily, about the things you would miss if you didn’t have them can be a powerful exercise.
Keeping it Real
This isn’t to diminish how incredibly painful life is when our relationships are in disarray, or when we’ve lost a loved one, or a job, or our health, or something else of significance, but accepting our reality can actually bring some peace of mind. Facing that life simply isn’t a respecter 0f persons can prevent us from the pain of trying to force a fantasy into existence.
What If It Never Changes?
Try this thought experiment. Name something in your life that causes you distress. Then ask yourself, “What if it never changes? What will I do then?” Does this open up a whole different path of thinking than trying to figure out how to make it change?
For example, when I accept (not just acknowledge) that my extended family is divided on important matters, I can simply purpose not to engage in discussions about those things when we’re together. I can’t change anyone’s mind and they can’t change mine, so we can simply agree to disagree and enjoy what common ground we can find, even when there isn’t much. Perhaps your family is similar?
Or perhaps you’re single this holiday season, and it seems like families all over the world are celebrating togetherness when all you want for Christmas is a partner to enjoy the holidays–and life–with. What if you were to accept that this holiday isn’t going to be easy? Would you plan a different kind of holiday for yourself? Could you start a new tradition? Or do you simply need to get some videos, popcorn and tissues and make it through the day?
What kind of monkey wrench is life throwing into your mix these days? What if you stopped resisting it, and radically accepted what you wish were entirely different? Could you allow yourself to grieve the loss of your fantasy, and then trust that another will eventually open up that that you may like even more? This is the phenomenon of synthetic happiness.
Synthetic happiness is the satisfaction that eventually comes upon us when we don’t get what we want. It’s about learning to enjoy what we do get. Natural happiness relies on external factors, while synthetic happiness relies on internal factors, so it can be a more long-term, stable form of happiness. Since life is unpredictable, it makes sense to develop a taste for life as it is, to be fully present with what we have.
This is what the Buddha discovered so long ago when he realized that his desires were the source of his unhappiness, and that giving up the notion that he could make life the way he wanted actually freed him from the pain of desiring life to be different than it was.
This radical acceptance business doesn’t mean passive living. It simply means accepting that you don’t have control over some things, and that saving your resources and applying them to what you do have control over is wise. Radical acceptance takes practice, but when we adopt it as a principle of wisdom, it makes life a lot easier and can be a key factor in helping us diminish our stress. It just doesn’t make sense to try to make a dog meow.