Acceptance and Emotional Health

Don't confuse acceptance with passivity

By Becky Tilahun, PhD

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“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation, some fact of my life unacceptable to me and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation…” — Alcoholic Anonymous book

This quote has been my most quoted one as I work with patients with chronic pain and life altering medical conditions who struggle with acceptance. Acceptance is a critical attitude that predicts emotional health and wellbeing despite the type of challenges in life. Even for us medical providers, daily hassles can be maneuvered with better grit when we adapt the attitude of acceptance.

When confronted with undesirable situations or things don’t go our way, our natural tendency is to respond negatively and fight the situation even when we know it is a situation we cannot change.

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On the way to work, if we encounter a busy traffic that causes significant delay, being angry about it will not change the traffic delay by one second, but its hard to accept the reality and not get angry. But we can respond better if we accept the delay considering the fact that there is always the chance of accident on the road and coming up with a plan B for next time, maybe changing the route we take to work or leaving home early. Yet, often times we waste emotional energy on situations we cannot control and are left with a sense of defeat and frustration.

Acceptance is an attitude often confused with passivity when it is the opposite. Passivity is denial of reality and avoidance of responsibility. Acceptance, on the other hand, is facing reality with calm and grace, and focusing on how to best to respond to the unpleasant or unexpected circumstance.

In psychology, the term “radical acceptance” encourages the attitude of accepting life fully as it is and yet doing what is within our control. Acceptance also involves embracing our limits and those things in life we cannot change. It is about playing “with the cards” we are given in life, rather than being upset with the type of “cards” we have. It is about letting go of how people, places or situations should be, and focusing on our attitude and reactions.