The idea of acceptance in the context of mental illness has been bubbling around in my head for a while now, and not long ago I wrote about non-acceptance and suffering in the context of mental illness. What prompted me to start this post was reading a post by Sarah of Hope Whispers about accepting the hard truths of mental illness, and I wanted to talk a little more about what acceptance is not and what it is.
Acceptance is the opposite of resistance. Resisting takes a lot of mental energy without yielding much of anything in return. There are also other alternatives to resistance that are different from acceptance. One is resignation, which has connotations of hopelessness and giving up. Another is embracing, involving wanting and inviting, which acceptance, on its own, isn’t about.
One of the ways of explaining acceptance that I’ve come across is how you might react if it’s raining, and I love a good metaphor. We’ll start with some of the kinds of reactions that acceptance is not, and then move on to what acceptance might involve.
Acceptance is not…
Throwing away your sunglasses
This is how I think of resignation; it’s deciding that it’s raining, so it’s always going to rain, and there’s no hope of the rain ever stopping, so why bother even keeping your sunglasses.
Yet that’s not how weather (or life) works. Weather changes. It might rain all this week or even all this month, but that doesn’t mean change will never happen. Acceptance is not about predicting what might happen in the future; it means acknowledging that what’s happening today is happening today, and if something different happens tomorrow, you can deal with that then.
Doing a rain dance
This is like embracing and inviting. Rain can be a good thing in moderation, but that doesn’t mean you have to try to actively invite more of it into your life. You don’t have to want another week of rain to be able to accept that it’s raining today.
Trying to manifest sunshine
The law of attraction would tell you that if you just want it hard enough, you can manifest sunshine. The thing is, though, that the clouds up in the sky that are dropping the rain on your head really don’t care what you want. They will do their own thing and pass in their own time. My feelings about the law of attraction aside, you can pour a lot of mental energy into trying to change something that you can’t control. The sun will reappear eventually on its own, regardless of what you do or don’t do/want, but in the meantime, there are more productive ways to use that mental energy than pouring it into something you have no control over.
Throwing away your umbrella
Accepting that it’s raining doesn’t mean not taking actions to control your level of comfort within the context of the rainy day. You don’t need to throw away your umbrella and your Goretex and just be wet and cold. Maybe it’s not cold and you want to go out and dance naked in the rain; you still don’t have to throw away the umbrella.
Acceptance is: It’s raining
So, there are various things acceptance is not, but what is it? Acceptance is acknowledging that it’s raining, that’s the way it is right now, and there’s nothing you can do about it in the present. From that place of acceptance, you can look for ways to make the most out of the rainy day. Maybe that’s staying inside and drinking a lot of tea. Maybe it’s putting on your wellies and going out to jump in puddles. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Maybe if it’s raining tomorrow, your rainy day response will be different than today’s response. Maybe you can make plans for things to do the next time the sun peeks out.
Regardless, the foundation of acceptance is “it’s raining,” and being there in that rainy moment that you can’t change without getting dragged off in different directions by your thoughts as they try to judge. Those thoughts might still be there, but acceptance can help to anchor you in that moment.
It’s a lot like the beginning of the Serenity Prayer, except with the God part being optional: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Acceptance does not preclude the courage to change what you can. At its best, acceptance comes hand in hand with that wisdom to know the difference.
What role does acceptance play in your mental illness, or life in general? Do you define it differently?