What You CAN Control
Over the course of my career, I met two people with similar experiences. Their experiences teach us the difference between accepting what is and resisting your situation.
The first story comes from a man I will call George. George was engaged to a young woman attending a university in another state. One weekend, he and a buddy decided to visit George’s fiance. The buddy was driving on the long road trip and fell asleep at the wheel resulting in an accident. George broke his back, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life.
I met George many years later when he brought his adopted daughter to a therapy session. I learned the rest of George’s remarkable story as he became an author and motivational speaker.
He described the pain and despair he felt as he faced the grief over losing control of his body. George tells of one night in the hospital when, with a metal halo screwed into his skull, overwhelming depression gripped his very soul.
With frank honesty, he faced the darkness and realized he could follow the path of despair or he could choose to live his life. Until that point, he believed regaining the ability to walk was the only way he would be able to have any semblance of a life. During this pivotal moment he decided that, although he would continue to work hard toward walking again, he could still live a full, productive life even if he never regained the ability to walk.
He was not thrilled with the wheelchair, but he decided he could live within the situation life had given him. He recounts both painful and humorous stories about life in a wheelchair. George went on to get married, raise two children, sell tennis courts for a living, participate in paralympics, become an author, and inspire others to live fully and well.
George learned to live a life full of abundance in love, relationships, humor, and joy–all within the confines of a wheelchair.
Julie is a woman who had a similar story with different results. She was a young mother who attended therapy at our clinic. She had also been in a serious car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
As a paraplegic, she felt she could no longer mother her two children. Julie did not attend their school functions, she did not cook or attend to their physical needs, and she did not help them with homework or read to them. She believed she could not do any of the activities of day-to-day life until she could walk again.
Eventually, she determined that as long as she was in a wheelchair she couldn’t even leave the house. She stopped coming to the clinic for therapy but would participate over the phone. In the end, even that became too much.
The latest news we heard from this client was that she was spending her days in the gloom of a darkened bedroom. She insisted the wheelchair was the problem and claimed she would return to living life if she could just walk again. She lived in resistance to her situation. Julie’s resistance robbed her of the family life that was within her grasp.
Here you are
Here you are.
This is where life has placed you.
This is where you are right at this minute.
Wishing you were somewhere else does not take you there.
No one wakes up in the morning and says, “today I hope I become paralyzed and live the remainder of my days in a wheelchair.” We have shared the experiences of two people in that very situation.
Neither of them wanted to be there, but one accepted his situation. He lived life fully within his limitations. The other sank into despair with resistance to what is by insisting that she would only be OK if she could walk again.
It is when we think we need to be somewhere other than where we are that we feel pain, discontentment, and suffering. Instead of acceptance, people usually blame others, feel a sense of self-loathing, or a need to figure it all out.
However, blame, shame, and analyzing how you got where you are doesn’t put you in a different place. What is your current situation? Honestly looking at where you are today empowers you from within.
You can’t take any action to change things now if you use all your energy insisting that your situation needs to be different.
Accept the situation as it is–then move forward.
You can’t move forward while all your energy is working against what is. Carl Jung stated it very simply, “We cannot change anything unless we accept it.”
Imagine you are in a raft in a beautiful mountain river. You come to some fast moving rapids. They send fear coursing through your veins.
The only resource you have to get out of the rapids is a paddle, so you frantically paddle upstream trying to return to calm waters and the serene landscape. However, your struggle makes the journey through the rapids much more dangerous.
Your depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. is like you in the stream of life. When you struggle against your situation, it’s like paddling upstream.
Paddling is what you know.
It takes a lot of energy, so it feels like you are doing something productive to fix the problem. However, paddling upstream is like resistance, and resistance is actually struggling to maintain the problem.
The following examples will help illustrate the difference between resistance and accepting what your situation is:
Nancy came to therapy because her husband of 28 years was addicted to TV and internet. He set up a futon to sleep on in the den and asked that his meals be brought to him so he wouldn’t have to leave.
Nancy had dreams of traveling, serving others, and enjoying life in their retirement years. Instead, her days were filled with loneliness, boredom, and rejection from her husband. She came to therapy to explore her childhood in an effort to understand the root of why she couldn’t get her husband to engage with life.
She hoped that by changing him she would have a more fulfilling life. The discussion in therapy turned to accepting that she was married to a man who didn’t want to travel, didn’t want to sharehopes and dreams, and had little motivation for any significant interactions.
Nancy’s energy to that point had been focused on getting her husband to change. The idea of accepting her situation was completely foreign to her; but as Nancy shifted her focus away from what her husband should be and started accepting what he was, it freed her energy so she was able to pursue her dreams and aspirations without waiting for him to change.
She invited him to join her but moved forward when he declined. She joined a women’s travel group. She started quilting and painting. She developed a family newsletter to stay in touch with her children.
To her surprise, one day she came home to find her husband fixing a broken rain gutter. Although not in the way Nancy had dreamed, over time, he too reengaged with life to a small degree.
Janice was enrolled in a master’s program. She was in her mid-thirties and had never been kissed. Janice came to therapy to help her know what to do to get married.
Life was on hold until she had a husband. I asked her to consider accepting that she wasn’t married. In stubborn opposition to my suggestion, she emphatically outlined the pain, loneliness, and heartbreak of being single.
Accepting that she was not married was unthinkable to her.
The energy spent paddling upstream by resisting that she was single held her hostage, and she was unable to live life outside the realms of despair.
She couldn’t raise her hand in class and respond because she wasn’t married.
She couldn’t be happy because she wasn’t married.
She couldn’t flirt with guys or join an online dating website because she wasn’t married.
She was afraid to secure professional employment because she might choose a position that would prevent her from meeting her future husband.
Her entire life’s energy focused on not being married. Her lack of acceptance held her bound in a prison of her own making with little insight that she had other choices.
Jim’s ex-wife put lots of energy into getting their children to hate him (called parental alienation). Jim wanted to spend his time in therapy discussing how bad his ex-wife was to do this.
Jim spent both his money and his energy in court trying to get his ex-wife to change. I told him the story of the two people in wheelchairs and suggested that his ex-wife was his metaphoric wheelchair. I suggested he accept that he had an ex-wife who did all in her power to alienate his children from him.
He needed to problem solve and work from where he was–not from where he should be. In time, Jim began to accept that his children saw him as a monster due to their mother’s coaching.
Rather than waiting for his ex-wife to change, he put his energy toward living with integrity by basing his choices on his values rather than his circumstances (see Healthy Living: “Value Based Choice”).
I also suggested accepting that his children had a mom and dad who did not trust each other. This was the children’s metaphoric wheelchair. He continued exercising his visitation rights even though the children resisted coming, destroyed property while there, and called in multiple child abuse complaints.
Gradually, as his children grew, they realized he was a steady presence in their lives, and things began to improve even though his ex-wife did not change.
Resistance Doesn’t Produce Change
In each example, someone was paddling upstream in resistance to a situation. Those who learned to accept the situation were able to negotiate the treacherous waters.
It takes a lot of effort to paddle upstream.
That level of energy and work makes you feel like you are doing everything in your power to make things better, but you are going nowhere. It is taking all your energy to stay where you are.
The struggle comes from refusing to accept what is. What your internal dialogue (mind chatter) tells you to do won’t work because your thoughts are primarily fear based (see Anxiety: “You and Your Thoughts are Separate”).
Think of children playing with Chinese handcuffs. You put your fingers in either end of a tube. Your mind tells you to pull to get your fingers out, but if you pull, you become more bound and your fingers remain stuck in the handcuffs. You must relax your fingers; that is how you escape the grip of the little straw handcuff game.
Quicksand is another great example.
If you are in quicksand, your instincts tell you to struggle to get free. You are sinking and in real trouble, but you must maximize your contact with the problem. Lay back into the quicksand, and you will stop sinking.
If you struggle against it, you will sink. Fear and resistance hold you hostage. They keep you bound to the situation with feelings of hopelessness and despair.
The more you work against what is, the less the situation changes.
Look at your present situation and make a simple statement of acceptance. “I am in a job that is not fulfilling,” is a statement of acceptance rather than focusing energy on blaming the boss or being angry that you have to pay bills.
“My marriage is mostly fighting,” is another statement of acceptance of what is.
“My child is angry and depressed.”
“There isn’t enough money to pay the bills.”
“I am not married and I want to be.”
These are all examples of statements of acceptance. Honest acceptance allows you to let go of what your life is supposed to be and empowers you to make choices that will help you heal and grow.
Acceptance is Not Passive
When I first introduce the idea of accepting what is to clients, they usually have a common reaction. They think I am suggesting they become very passive in response to their situation–that they adopt a “whatever will be, will be” attitude.
They think I am saying, “be a helpless bystander to life and just take whatever comes,” but this is not at all what I’m saying.
There is nothing passive about accepting what is. To become passive and helpless with no energy toward life is giving up.
I am not suggesting you give up.
I am suggesting that accepting your situation empowers you to choose what you will do about it.
Some things are within your power to change while others are not. You have to start your journey from where you are–not where you want to be or where you think you should be.
Accept the situation for what it is, and then decide what you will do about it. Accepting what is takes courage, integrity, and hope. As we learn to trust life with this acceptance–when we stop wasting effort paddling against the rapids–an incredible amount of energy becomes available to live life abundantly.
Reality is what you have to work with.
What you are entitled to or what you should have in a completely fair and just world is not relevant to what you actually have. At the beginning of this article I told you about George who ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
Following normal grief and loss, he accepted he was in a wheelchair. Only after this acceptance was he free to learn how to live in a wheelchair.
This was an act of significant courage and inner strength that was awe-inspiring. It was not an act of passivity. He took responsibility for living life abundantly within his situation.
On the other hand, Julie, who was also paralyzed, sat passively in her wheelchair day after day insisting that she couldn’t be in a wheelchair. Her energy was tied up in resistance that was all-consuming, denying her the growth and joy of life and love that was right before her.
Acceptance of what is requires an empowerment from within.
For example, if you are in a situation that is clearly not acceptable, like abuse, you acknowledge, “I am in an abusive situation,” followed by asking yourself, “how do I take steps within my control to change the situation?”
You can’t make your life different if your energy is tied up with thoughts like, “My husband, boss, or mother shouldn’t be abusive,” or by minimizing the situation by saying “it isn’t that bad,” or “he didn’t mean to.”
State the situation honestly: “my husband is abusive.”
From there, you can make a choice.
You may choose to stay with your husband, seek counseling, or file for divorce. You have to start where you are–not where you should be.
This is a very different approach from saying, “my husband, boss, or mother needs to change for me to heal and be OK.” This is passive as you wait for others or your situation to change.
The cost you will pay for not accepting where you are is high.
Resistance takes a lot of work.
Acceptance asks us to show up with what we have.
Some would call this faith. Faith asks us to accept what we have and then work from there.
Trusting the Process of Life
Trusting life requires acceptance. With this acceptance, we can listen to our own thoughts and fears with understanding and inner compassion.
Trusting life with acceptance is not about mastering life and controlling it. Life is not to be controlled. We may want to exert our control over life because it helps us feel less vulnerable, but it is only an illusion of safety. Vulnerability is a part of living.
When we paddle upstream, we want to force our will over the forces of life. This is the most unproductive use of our energy because it takes us away from safety and growth–not toward it. The very acceptance of our vulnerability brings the desired peace toward whatever life brings our way.
Each life experience teaches some of this wisdom if we are willing to accept and listen.
No matter your circumstance, call it what it is. This is called acceptance. Once you call it what it is, you can move forward.
In her book “The Gift of Imperfection,” Brene Brown offers a beautiful summary of accepting what is:
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy–the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”