Have you ever struggled with wanting to change something in your life that is painful or difficult to face? Are there things in your past that you regret or wish did not happen? Do you find yourself worrying about the future? Do you wish someone in your life would treat you differently or take care of themselves differently because what they are doing worries you?
It turns out we don’t have control over these things! We can’t change the past, we can’t know the future, and we can’t control how other people interact with us or choose to live their lives. Given this, many people come to the conclusion that we have to work on acceptance which is a willingness to tolerate something as it is in the moment, without doing anything to change it (because we can’t!).
And yet, don’t we all want things to feel better emotionally or physically or go better in our lives? Why would you want to accept painful experiences in your life if you have the ability to change them? Thankfully, there are a lot of things that we can work to change. You can change your job. You can change how you interact with others. You can change who you spend your time with or how you cope with different situations. You can change your diet and exercise routines. And all of these changes are within your control and can have a marked impact on your life. So, does the idea of wanting things to change go against the concept of acceptance?
What we need is a way to understand when it is a good time to work on acceptance, and when it is a good time to work on change. And that way is outlined in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) when they talk about Radical Acceptance. Radical Acceptance is a distress tolerance skill where you work on acknowledging the reality of a particular moment (or of the past) and letting it be what it is without changing it. The radical part is throwing your whole self into really connecting with all of the thoughts and feelings associated with that moment. In the video below, DBT creator Marsha Linehan talks about how she learned Radical Acceptance while at a Buddhist monastery. In it, she says something that almost gets lost in her story, that even if we are accepting a moment, we are also working to change the next moment.
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So how do we decide what to accept and what to change? There’s a relatively simple test for that. If there is something that you are both able and willing to do to change the situation/moment/feeling, then you should do that and work on change. If you are not able to do anything (i.e. you can’t change something that happened to you when you were a child) or you are not willing to do what is necessary to change (i.e. I am not willing to write to my congress-person to encourage them to change a law I don’t like), then I work on accepting the situation as it is in this moment.
While that sounds pretty simple, the tricky part is in the details. What if I’m actually just ambivalent about change and so that’s why I’m not willing to do it? Or, what if I’m too eager to try and change everything because I’m anxious and trying to control things I really can’t control? How can I tell if I’m using the concept of acceptance as a way to not deal with things I’m finding hard to change or I’m trying to change things I can’t change?
Trying to answer these questions can be like trying to stand on a balance board on the deck of a moving ship. In some moments you will feel like you’re perfectly balanced, then things will change and you’ll have to work hard to maintain (or regain!) your balance in the next moment. The good thing about this is that you can never really do it wrong! If you keep checking to see if you feel in balance with the moment you are in (and are honest with yourself in the process), you can keep adjusting between change and acceptance. The more you check in with yourself, the more you fine-tune your balance and the easier it gets.
Acceptance is a powerful tool. And so is change! Finding that sweet spot between acceptance and change can help you transform your life into one that feels great to you.