Let’s Talk About… Acceptance

By Jeremy Godwin.

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.

This is Episode 36 and this week I’m talking about acceptance – I’ll be discussing the role of acceptance in good mental health, the difference between self-acceptance and acceptance of external events (and why both are important), how to get better at accepting yourself for who you are, and how to develop greater acceptance of external circumstances. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!

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Just before we begin today, a quick reminder that you can find the complete transcript for every episode at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes (just find the episode you’re after in the list and select the link in the ‘Read’ column), so if you ever find yourself wanting to make notes about what I’ve said you can find it in the transcript. You can also sign up for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe to have new posts land in your inbox each week, so you can read each new transcript at your leisure. OK, on with this week’s episode!

Introduction

Last week in Episode 35 I talked about insecurity, and one of the main points I made was that we can find greater peace of mind in accepting things as they are rather than resisting or wishing that circumstances were different (since the past cannot be changed), and instead choosing to approach things more rationally and objectively so that we have a better chance of success in terms of improving the situation. ‘Acceptance’ is something I talk about a lot in Let’s Talk About Mental Health, and very often our suffering can be directly related to the degree to which we resist the truth of what is — in other words: instead of getting hung up on how you ended up wherever you are (since that’s a futile waste of energy as you are where you are right now, whether you like it or not), peace is to be found in accepting the present as it is and then working from that point to create a better future. This is realistic optimism in action, as it means we have an accurate assessment of our current reality but we know that with time, effort and perseverance we can improve things and we can grow. I know — this is some seriously philosophical stuff, right?!

Let me give you my own recent example which is either going to make you laugh or roll your eyes… one of the things that sent me into shock back in March when the world went nuts as Coronavirus turned everything upside-down was the cancellation of Eurovision 2020. I know, I know — it’s the song contest that you either love or hate (unless you’ve never heard of it, in which case I send you my hearty commiserations!), but as many of you know by now I’ve been obsessed with Eurovision for many, many years and it is the absolute highlight of my year. When it was cancelled for the first time ever this year there was a lot going on in the world plus at the time my cat Pushka was very sick, and it just added to the tailspin I was already in. For several months I wanted nothing to do with the special content that was being released — I didn’t watch the Europe Shine A Light special aired when the contest was originally scheduled for, and I didn’t listen to any of the 2020 entries. In short, I kind-of went into denial mode on a whole bunch of things and this was one of them. About a month ago something shifted and I found myself finally able to lean into acceptance more, and not long after I listened to the entries and watched the special and now not a day goes by where I’m not listening to my favourites (I’m doing so now as I write this — it’s the Iceland entry, Think About Things, and yes I think it would have or should have been the winner!).

My point (if I have one) is that until we’re able to reach a point of accepting things as they are, instead of pretending it’s not happening or resisting the truth, we’re not able to make our peace with circumstances — and until you have made your peace with it, you cannot move forward. And so that is what we’re exploring this week…  

What is acceptance?

There are two types of acceptance, internal and external. Internal acceptance refers to accepting yourself (i.e. Self-acceptance) whilst external acceptance refers to submitting to the reality that external events are what they are. It doesn’t mean that you have to approve of whatever the situation is; it simply means that you acknowledge things as they are. There’s a big difference between ‘acceptance’ and ‘approval’, and in a 2017 Psychology Today article by Denise Fournier she wrote:

“Acceptance is acknowledging what’s already happened; approval is consenting to more of it in the future… [acceptance] simply means that you’re facing reality as it’s being presented to you so you can make a decision about how to proceed.”

Denise Fournier

(Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/mindfully-present-fully-alive/201711/the-inescapable-importance-acceptance

Another way of looking at it is summed up in the words of Michael J. Fox; “Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it.”

Here’s the thing: acceptance does not mean just getting over it or giving up. It means being willing to acknowledge that what is is what is, and that the circumstances of the past cannot be changed — however, it’s also about knowing that it is always possible to change events for the better both now and in the future. Which might sound like a total paradox, but I promise you that it will make much more sense as we explore this topic further. 

The role of acceptance in good mental health

This might sound like a pretty big statement to make, but I’m going to make it anyway: acceptance is one of the most important and fundamental aspects of good mental health. Why? Because the opposite of acceptance is resistance, and resisting is important when it comes to human rights violations and social injustices but when it comes to your mental health all it does is create additional unnecessary suffering.

Life is full of challenges and to live means that we each will experience a whole spectrum of emotions, from the great through to the painful. We have a tendency to focus more energy on the negative, which is why it can be difficult to let go when we’re suffering — this is where a focus on building your ability to accept things as they are can then help you to focus your energy on moving forward, rather than weighing yourself down and increasing your suffering.

Acceptance forms the foundation of many spiritual and philosophical belief systems – for example, the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism is “desire is the root of all suffering” which perfectly describes lack of acceptance (i.e. Wanting reality to be different to what it is or ignoring reality). 

Think about a recent political example (and I don’t usually bring politics up, so to be clear I’m commenting on the situation that occurred and not whether I agree with the event or not): Brexit. When the result of the vote was declared, there was an absolute uproar followed by demands for a second vote etc etc… so much energy was wasted on fighting against accepting the reality of what had happened in order to move forward, and it’s an extreme example but I bring it up because so often we can find ourselves wishing for a do-over and playing the “What if?” game where we imagine how things might have turned out differently (especially when we’re not happy with the result), but life doesn’t work like that; there are no do-overs. That doesn’t mean that we don’t use our voices to demand better, but we also need to be realistic and deal with things as they are.

I particularly like this quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn quoted in a 2015 article about acceptance in Psychology Today:

“Acceptance doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is — especially when you don’t like it — and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

(Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-second-noble-truth/201506/acceptance-it-isnt-what-you-think)

Acceptance isn’t about giving in or giving up; in fact, acceptance takes courage and it is quite possibly the bravest thing that we can ever hope to do in the face of adversity. In that article by Denise Fournier that I mentioned earlier, she wrote:

“Failing to accept reality creates suffering where there’s already pain. It creates confusion where there can be clarity, anguish where there can be peace. We don’t accept things in order to change what’s happening, nor do we do it in order to feel better about it. We accept because it’s the only logical thing to do. Whatever is happening is happening; whatever occurred already occurred. We embrace reality because it’s already here, right now, and resisting it won’t make it go away.”

Denise Fournier

(Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/mindfully-present-fully-alive/201711/the-inescapable-importance-acceptance)  

Changing the way you think about things is not impossible, but it’s also not easy – it takes time, effort and perseverance. Why bother then? Because it’s worth it and it helps you to grow. And with that in mind, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode. 

Let me just make a note here that I mentioned two types of acceptance earlier – self-acceptance along with accepting external events, and I’ll be touching on both in the how-to part. Let’s start with self-acceptance… 

How to improve your self-acceptance

Self-acceptance goes hand-in-hand with self-esteem, which is something I’ll be exploring further in a future episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health (in the next month or two), and I’ve touched on a few related subjects in the past. There are a few important things to consider when you’re working on improving your self-acceptance: 

  • The way you talk to yourself matters (which is why I covered it back in Episode 9), so be conscious of speaking to yourself and thinking about yourself positively… my general rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t say it to your elderly grandmother then it has no place in the dialogue you have with yourself. Check out Episode 9 for more about self-talk and mental health.
  • Remember that you have value, no matter what. You are worthy, you matter, and you have something to contribute to this world. If you do no harm to yourself or others, are kind to yourself and others (without taking any shit), and you give more than you take from this world, then you are a decent person — and if we all focused on being decent, this world would be a much better place to live. 
  • You will make mistakes. If you make mistakes, that’s okay – mistakes are learning opportunities and they are how we grow, how we evolve. I talked about mistakes all the way back in Episode 2 (practically a lifetime ago!) and I did so because the notion that learning to be okay with our mistakes and forgiving ourselves is another one of the most fundamental and foundational aspects of good mental health and wellbeing. As I said back in that episode, learn from your mistakes and be kind to yourself, then accept it and move forward; everybody makes mistakes.
  • Other people’s opinions are not facts; they are opinions. Don’t let what other people think hold you back from being the best version of yourself that you can be. I talked about opinions back in Episode 21 and I encourage you to check that one out if you haven’t already.
  • Know your strengths and all of your positives, and make the most of them.
  • Know your weaknesses and all of your learning opportunities, and make conscious effort to be a little bit better every day. 
  • Listen to yourself and trust your instincts — as Lao Tzu said; “At the centre of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”
  • If you’re dealing with mental health issues and self-acceptance is a sticking point, work with a professional (counsellor or therapist) and/or find self-paced tools (for example, Self-Acceptance: The Key to Recovery from Mental Illness by Ashear & Hastings, which is a practical workbook for groups and individuals published in 2015 and available in print and ebook). 

How to get better at accepting things as they are

  • Make a choice — do you want to feel stuck or (worse yet) dragged down by circumstances and events? Or do you want to feel positive about your life and to have as much control as you can (given the reality that there will always be many things outside of your direct control)? In the words of William James, “Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” 
  • Let’s use Coronavirus as an example… there are many who continue to fight against it in the sense of not accepting the reality of what is or airing grievances about the behaviours of others (including their government)… but what does that do? The virus doesn’t give a shit about politics or any of this nonsense, it’s just spreading like any disease does. There is so much judging and finger-pointing going on, which is leading to even more extreme behaviour as people protest about having to wear face masks or complaining that the economy should be prioritised over public health and safety. You can get caught up in all of this and the feelings it triggers for you based on your individual beliefs, or you could approach this situation with an acceptance mindset; things are as they are, and no amount of fighting or finger-pointing is going to change it. So what do you do now? Do you continue to waste your energy on the problem, or do you accept things as they are and become part of the solution? There’s only one smart choice in any situation, especially a crisis like this: focus on yourself (rather than what other people are or aren’t doing), accept things as they are and do what is within your control to make things better. By all means, join the chorus in terms of demanding fairness and kindness to all in terms of medical attention and financial support… but don’t let that be an excuse for then getting into arguments with people whose belief systems are fundamentally different, because you are never going to convince someone to change through arguing so it is up to you to accept that fact and focus on what you can do instead (which is to be positive, to accept things as they are and to contribute to change by focusing on what’s within your own direct control).
  • Acceptance takes work — it doesn’t happen just because you decide to flip a switch; acceptance takes conscious effort. You can do this by cultivating greater self-awareness (in terms of how you instinctively react to situations) and do the work to build and maintain a positive mindset (something I discussed in Episode 31)
  • Engage in activities that support acceptance — focus on doing things that make for a better today and tomorrow rather than fighting about what happened yesterday, because the past cannot be changed no matter how hard you resist that truth; it is what it is, it’s happened.
  • Focus on relationships that promote acceptance — if you’re around negative people all the time, it’s virtually impossible for that not to rub off on you. You can’t change other people, so instead choose to be around people who have a positive mindset and who embrace acceptance. Yes, that’s hard (especially if that means spending less time with people you love because of their negativity), but you have to decide what’s more important to you — the relationship or your peace of mind. Sometimes you just cannot have both, and you need to accept that fact.
  • Pursue emotional experiences that boost acceptance — focus more on ‘can’ instead of ‘cannot’; on ‘will’ instead of ‘won’t’; say ‘yes’ to opportunities more often and say ‘no’ to things that take away from your sense of peace and calm.
  • Change what you can, let go of what you cannot — sometimes that means having to change the way you look at things that are out of your control; sometimes that means having to walk away completely.
  • Practice acceptance daily — running late due to traffic? Instead of focusing on the negative, let go of what is beyond your control and focus on what is. Find refuge and joy in the little moments; those little moments are what really matters in life, and once you embrace that mindset it changes how you choose to exert your energy.
  • Consciously practice acceptance of others — this is one I haven’t really explored too much as part of this topic, but let me just say that when you judge other people it is the opposite of acceptance and it’s damaging to them and to you. And I’m talking about actual acceptance here, not ‘tolerance’ — there is a big difference between ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’, and I for one am not prepared to settle for just being tolerated because that’s not true equality… this is a much bigger topic for another episode, but suffice it to say that equality and acceptance go hand-in-hand.
  • Moving on… because prevention is better than cure, there are many things you can do every day to build greater acceptance, such as:
  • Mindfulness practice – slow down and be aware of the present moment; it doesn’t need to be a grand production 
  • Gratitude practice – again, it doesn’t need to be some massive undertaking: just take a few moments each day to think about what you appreciate in life
  • Breathing exercises – they help to centre you and bring you to the present moment, and they can even be done in just a minute or two
  • Journalling – you can journal to deal with things or process through things that you’re struggling to accept, or you can simply focus on getting your feelings out and letting go of things (something I discussed in Episode 32: Letting Go)

Again, it’s worthwhile getting professional assistance to help you develop a greater sense of acceptance when it comes to external events (especially if it’s something you struggle with) — see a counsellor or therapist weekly or fortnightly to help you work through practical ways to build greater acceptance (especially for events outside of your control).

Summary and Close-Out

When it comes to acceptance, what it all boils down to is this: there are so many things in this life that we have absolutely no power over other than how we respond to them, and when we spend too much time focused on what we can never hope to change we create unnecessary suffering for ourselves. You will never be able to avoid negative stuff (because it’s inevitable in life) but what you can do is accept things as they are rather than wasting your energy resisting reality. Instead of focusing on the negative, that energy can be more effectively used to focus on what you can do today to make things better in order to create a much brighter tomorrow.

That’s nearly it for this week. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by James Baldwin, and it is:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

James Baldwin

Next week, I’ll be talking about growth. I’ll be discussing the role of personal growth in living a better life and exploring ways that you can incorporate a growth mindset into your day-to-day living.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.

You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).

Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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