The Meaning of Acceptance

NOTE: Jessica is a composite from multiple cases.

Like everyone else, you have stress in your life, and you want to be able to deal with it. The first step is Acceptance. Many people hear that word and say, “You want me to quit? To give up? To admit I’ve been defeated?” A lot of people confuse acceptance with giving up, being passive, and resigned to the inevitability of stressful events swirling around them. Passivity and helplessness, however, are not at all what we mean by acceptance.

Think of acceptance as the opposite of avoidance, of running away from your problems. When you seek to avoid and escape your stressors, you get trapped by irrational thinking, denial, and passively accepting what others tell you. Acceptance, on the other hand, means empowering yourself, facing yourself and the reality around you. Sometimes those actions mean working through some pain and suffering, but that is often necessary if you are to grow. President Woodrow Wilson once told an assistant, “I have found that one can never get anything in life that is worthwhile without fighting for it.” (Cited from Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr.)

When you hear that acceptance is the first step in coping with stress, do not think for a minute that it means you must tolerate things or give up. In a coping context, acceptance means facing the stark realities of life. For instance, you can rationally accept something like your mortality, or the passing of a loved one. However, in many circumstances, acceptance can take a lot of time and work because you must engage in emotional, behavioral, and thought acceptance. It’s not unusual to hear people say they accept something, but their behavior does not coincide with their verbalizations or with their emotional reactions. When those elements are out of sync, there’s coping trouble ahead!

Suppose you’re anxious and fearful about something going on in the world. Someone tells you, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. You’re worrying over nothing.” Does that comment make you feel better? It shouldn’t because it advises acceptance by denial – “Just deny what’s worrying you.” But you listen to this advice and say to yourself, “Yeh, you’re right, I shouldn’t be afraid. Everything will work out. I’ll just stay calm.” Do your words make you feel better? Probably not, and you continue to be bothered by troublesome emotions and thoughts in spite of your comforting words. This lack of synchronism is a warning to you that you are asking yourself to deny something, in this case, the part of you that is anxious and fearful. Denying yourself is a dangerous, self-defeating game that sabotages coping efforts and your mind senses it.

Jessica is a high-achieving college student. She says, “My parents always drilled in me the importance of doing things right. Sloppy work was just not an option. But I get so anxious and angry at myself when I fall short of perfection. Why am I like that? Why can’t I be like my brother who screws up but stays laid back, so cool, so in control? But me, I’m there biting my fingernails off!”

Do you see what’s happening here? Jessica refuses to accept her perfectionistic tendencies. That refusal makes her criticize herself; she is never satisfied with her work, even when it’s good, because in her mind it always falls short of perfection. She treats her traits like her enemy, and that treatment denies who she is.

What does acceptance mean for Jessica? She’s frustrated, anxious, and angry. How should she handle those emotions? How should she handle her perfectionistic thoughts that bring self-criticizing words upon her? Once she accepts that how she feels is a part of who she is, then she can think about her emotions a little differently. She’s mad at herself for being overly perfectionistic, but now – rather than deny her emotions by trying to eliminate them – she can pause and consider the positive aspects of her perfectionism: She is less likely to make foolish mistakes; she is showing others that she cares about the quality of her work; she is more likely to seek creative solutions to a task; she is less likely to depend on others for completing a task; she demonstrates how her actions are consistent with her values.

Jessica can disconnect her self-criticism by focusing on these points. She can also remind herself that her perfectionistic tendencies are consistent with how she was raised and taught by role models she respects. “I was always taught that I must act in ways that make me proud of the result. If I’m going to do something, do it right. That’s my value and it’s the principle I live by.”

As a general rule of coping, here’s what you can take from Jessica’s case: Instead of criticizing yourself for who you are, accept who you are and examine the benefits of your traits, even the ones you find troublesome. This analysis can increase your sense of control, personal empowerment, and autonomy, and allow you to adapt and synchronize those troublesome traits with accepting emotions and actions.

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