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Acceptance vs. Avoidance

I came across a quote recently that got me thinking about the deceptively simple mental health practice of acceptance. The quote is by M. Scott Peck (the psychiatrist and author) who said, “Mental health is a commitment to reality at all costs”. In other words, dealing with “reality as it is” which is the essential component of acceptance. There are so many ways that we avoid “reality as it is” because often, reality is not so awesome. If you live in Chicago, then you are likely familiar with Red light tickets (not awesome). A good example of one of the small ways non-acceptance comes up in my daily life is this week opening the mail to find a red light citation. The citation conveniently includes photos of my car going through an intersection (empirical evidence of reality), but my reaction was total denial, “I never ran that red light! This is crap!” followed by me throwing the citation down on the table and not looking at it since. If I continue to avoid it and “act as if” this reality is not truly my reality, then all sorts of bad things will happen: the ticket will double or triple in price, for example, and if I were to keep on pretending this isn’t reality at some point my car could be booted, towed, etc.

Avoidance and acceptance are frequent topics in therapy. One formula I use quite often with my clients and myself is, “Avoidance + Pain = Suffering”. Life includes painful experiences and realities, but pain is tolerable, whereas suffering is intolerable. Therapy is often a place where people are trying to understand suffering, and ideally decrease or get rid of suffering. However, acceptance, though an anecdote to suffering, is tricky because it does not mean that you like or prefer what is happening in the moment. Sometimes it can feel like giving in or giving up, when actually, acceptance only means that your eyes are open to what is happening which means you can then respond effectively because you can see clearly what is happening and what needs to be done. (Its not easy to respond effectively necessary, but it is at least possible with acceptance.) If you can’t see what is going on, then you certainly can’t respond very well! Having an addiction is probably the best example of what can happen in someone’s life when they continue to avoid their real lives and experiences by using alcohol, drugs, shopping, or sex to deny reality, but the suffering caused by avoidance can be seen and monitored in far less extreme situations as well (like my red light ticket!).

Some suggestions to practice acceptance is to first notice your “non-acceptance behaviors”. These behaviors can be anything to “accidentally” forgetting a meeting (that you were dreading) to surfing the Internet to getting angry and irritable and saying or thinking things like “this is unacceptable” or “I can’t believe this”. Once you become aware of these behaviors, whenever they show up, you can practice something called “Turning the Mind” towards acceptance. This means acknowledging the facts of a situation, how you really feel about them (sad, disappointed, devastated, hurt, etc) and using your body to accept the facts – I use my breath most often – thinking about the facts while taking deep breaths. You can also use your body posture, facial expression, and even your hands (open hands help with acceptance.) Know that acceptance is a choice, and when we don’t like something we have to make the choice over and over. (Its often very easy to accept things that we like and are happy about.) So, you can hang out in acceptance for awhile, and then you’ll likely notice you are back in non-acceptance, and once you become aware you can practice just going back to acceptance when you are ready.

Give this a try for the next week, and see how it feels to practice acceptance. I’m going to practice acceptance right now and take some deep breaths, and go pay my red light ticket!

Thanks for reading!

There are many books about acceptance and dealing more effectively with life’s ups and downs, but I love this book by Pema Chodron called The Wisdom of No Escape (sounds depressing, but its not!) Learn more about the book here:

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