The Art of Radical Acceptance
Disappointments and frustrations are part of our everyday lives. The grace and resiliency with which we move through these moments not only help make up the character of who we are, but also are an indicator of how happy we are or are not.
Many of us have a hard time dealing with disappointments due to an inability to accept hand we have been dealt. Instead, we fight against “what is” making ourselves, and oftentimes others, miserably as a result. If radical acceptance is not a concept you are familiar with or one that comes naturally to you, read on to learn how this skill can be practiced, developed and eventually, even become part of your nature.
Practice Radical Acceptance
Think back to childhood fairy-tales. Notice how chaos ensues in the world of the story when the characters fail to accept their lot in life. The woman who is infertile “gives birth” to a child, but there’s a catch (Thumbelina, Little Otik). Rapunzel’s mother does not have enough radishes to satisfy her pregnancy cravings, the owner of the golden goose once all the gold once… In every case there’s dissatisfaction, and inability to accept nature, a struggle against it and chaos ensues.
What can we learn from these archetypal stories?
Maybe you don’t have the dream job you thought you would, maybe your marriage failed, or your boyfriend cheated, perhaps you cannot have children or the ones you have are “ungrateful”. Instead of kicking and screaming and spending your energy fighting against Nature and the Universe, consider first allowing a Radical Acceptance to occur. Ironically, often this first step is the very thing that must occur before a change in your reality can occur. But acceptance is the thing you are fighting against. Want to change your life, Radical Acceptance is the is first step.
How do you begin to practice Radical Acceptance? Take a look at the following steps for start.
Look to the Laws of T’ai Chi
One of the core philosophical concepts of the philosophical practice of T’a Chi is that “movement and tranquility, in alternation, become each the source of the other”. There can be no happiness without despair. There can be no calm without chaos. More importantly, it is only through the chaos that peace is found.
When you find yourself in what seems to be a storm of frustration and disappointment, consider that just as there is a calm before the storm, there is also a calm awaiting afterward. Become the Observer. Make a conscious choice not to judge the situation, not to decide, not to try and fix or fight against anything just yet. Instead, just wait. Allow the natural laws of calm and chaos to move you into a better space.
And while you are waiting…
What I have found is that many moments of frustration are preventable. In my client work, I sometimes hear my own clients have some culpability in the frustrating situation they sometimes find themselves in.
Sometimes there are minor consequences.
Did you fail to pay your phone bill only to have it shut off? Where you late to a hairdresser appointment that the salon then would not honor? Did you fail to pay your taxes, are you late to your work regularly, behave in a way that was less than stellar?
Sometimes there are more serious consequences.
Did you lie in an attempt to hurt others? Did you allow your behaviors to be motivated by hate? Have you been unkind, dishonest or behave with a lack of integrity? The outcomes in these cases might hold harsher penalties in the karmic world. They are also huge opportunities for growth through redemption.
In the world of disappointment, it is very important to see these setbacks as potential moments of learning. That can only happen when you get honest with yourself. Whether it’s something minor like your phones been shut off, or something major such a favorable court decision, before you start blaming others or complaining about the injustice of it all, examine your behavior through the filter of brutal honesty and identify the lesson in your situation for you.
Disconnect – Change your focus
Got a nasty email from the ex? Turn off the computer and turn on the music. Change your state by changing your environment and interrupt your emotional and thought pattern. Allow your mind to began to disconnect by changing your focus.
Traffic jams become a breeze when you turn to an audiobook or your favorite podcast show.
Instead of complaining about co-workers, make a point to make eye contact and smile with a difficult person at work on a regular basis. Focus on connecting instead of criticizing. Something as simple as genuine human contact can be incredibly effective. Even if the other person doesn’t change, you know you’ve done your best and even the shift in effort makes workplace friction little less so.
On weekends where you might only have fifty bucks in your pocket, change the focus from your lacking to your generosity – volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Not only will you be helping your community, but you will feel awash in gratitude when you help others less fortunate than yourself.
Changing your focus doesn’t come easily. It might be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. At least if you’re doing it right it should be.
If knowing how to change focus when disappointed or frustrated is not your default, you are going to have to work harder at it. Just like anything else, you get better at it with practice. Practice moving from one state into that another by changing your focus and before long it will become second nature, and a very healthy coping mechanism.
Respond, Don’t React
Our lives are crazy hectic and can turn on a dime, so can our emotions. Instead of reacting to frustrating situations with force and fight, slow down to observe who and how you are being. Slow down to observe your own behavior and your own reaction.
Can you change the tone of your voice? Can you change the words you are using? Is it possible you are even wrong and the closest road to resolution is in acknowledging that?
Or maybe you have assessed the situation and it is clear there is no change in your approach that that will remedy it. This is a good thing to know too. As my calculus professor, Mr. Fishman, said to me one fateful day back in college, in response to my worry that I was failing his class, “Sometimes the best thing to learn in life is when to withdraw.”
Soon after, by the way, I freed myself from his class and became an English Literature major. It was great advice that I share with clients to this day. Thank you, Mr. Fishman.
There is a Jewish folktale titled, “It Could Always Be Worse”. It is a great moral lesson on gratitude and how the practice of it can shift your perspective. Read the story for yourself sometime and get grateful.
In the meantime, practice being grateful for every situation you find yourself in, even the crummy ones, knowing that it could always be worse. Where you in a car accident? Be grateful that everyone is okay. Were there some injuries? Be grateful they are not worse.
One lonely Thanksgiving I was feeling pretty lousy, cooking a feast for one. I had been newly divorced and my ex-husband and I had agreed to alternate holidays. It was my first holiday without my children.
Instead of telling my large circle of friends that I was available, I stayed home to feel sorry for myself. Dicing vegetables for my dinner I accidentally injured myself with a kitchen knife. The cut was deep enough that I knew it would require medical attention. Or perhaps it really didn’t, but I was feeling sad and dramatic so an ER visit on a major holiday seemed to make sense.
Waiting in the emergency room, crying inside at my circumstance, I spotted another woman whom I learned later was named Jenny. Jenny had her hand and forearm draped in a kitchen towel and seemed to be in pain. At one point she moved to readjust the towel and it fell to the floor. Her hand exposed, I could see large blisters and third-degree burns throughout the area.
I asked Jenny what had happened and she told me the story of how she was trying to surprise her family with a deep-fried turkey for Thanksgiving and the accident that had occurred in the process of that good intent.
“Where’s your family now?” I asked.
It turns out they were all at home eating the turkey Jenny had injured herself on while preparing. She was alone, like I was, on Thanksgiving day at the ER. But unlike me, who really had chosen to be alone, and unlike me, whose children were not available to no fault of their own… This woman had friends and family to chose to abandon her on Thanksgiving Day in the Emergency Room. In fact, it turned out that Jenny herself had had to drive herself to the ER because no one wanted to “spend Thanksgiving in the ER”, even if it meant mom and wife sitting there alone.
Yes, things could always be worse.
I called up a girlfriend and told her I was flying solo on Thanksgiving… She came and picked me up immediately and brought me back to her home where I was made welcome, fed and cared for and loved. This was available to me all along, but it took a glimpse at a condition worse than mine in order to spot what I had before me. And I was grateful.
None of the above suggestions working? Sometimes there are situations too hard to ignore and sometimes it is just too soon to overcome them. In these cases give yourself permission to let go. Let go of expectations. Let go of the fight. Let go of frustrations. And trust.
I’m a big believer that the Universe never leaves you alone. So if you even despite all the words you feel yourself still in a state of disappointment and frustration, perhaps the only thing left to do is to let go and allow yourself to be. And then trust that you will know exactly when it is time to start moving from that place, again.