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Life on life’s terms (an escape artist’s guide to going-with-the-flow)

Image of sunlight breaking through trees
Jake Givens | Unsplash

Opinion by SJ Whitaker

‘Acceptance’ is an often misunderstood concept. Exploring its several faces reveals an unexpected super-tool for mental health.

There is a certain kind of attitude to be heard from the British stiff-upper-lip Brigade. It goes something like this: ‘you just have to accept life and get on with it’.

Whilst this sort of gruff statement might hold truth, it is usually said in a brusque end-of-conversation way. It often reveals an underlying irritation with a person who may be struggling to accept their current situation. It is even more unhelpful – and sometimes lethal - when applied to those battling depression. In its worst form, it shows a lack of empathy and compassion.

In contrast, acceptance, in its fullest sense, is a gentler practice of coming-to-terms with the ups and downs of life, acknowledging how we truly feel, gaining perspective on our situation, and being able to see more clearly where we might be able to make changes. And there is a definite process to acceptance. It is part of a lifelong journey that enables us to ‘go with the flow’ of our lives more easily. Best of all, it can lead to a new peace of mind and heart where previously we may have had none.

What the term acceptance means for each us of will vary, and it may change as we learn and grow through our lives.

For myself, I have discovered the process of acceptance to be a mental health necessity. It is a practice that I can profitably return to again and again. Indeed, I need to return to it repeatedly, even though I often do so reluctantly. This is because I have always had difficulty accepting myself and life. I didn’t know this until I came into recovery for mental health issues.

Welcome to the world of the Escape Artist

As part of my recovery, I was guided to make unsparing inventories of my past, and how I have responded to life. This personal stock-taking is so useful to understanding and healing, whether at the beginning of a recovery journey or throughout life at regular inventories. Over time, it became very clear that I have always been an Escape Artist.

From an early age, I sought to escape from reality. It is true that did have some adverse childhood experiences, but perhaps I would have been like this anyway - I shall never know. Certainly, I have discovered later in life that I am somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum. I do know that I never felt as though I fitted in, and as a Highly Sensitive Person life felt harsh and difficult.

I sought escape through make believe and imagination, and a string of childish obsessions and fixations, and then, later, in substance-addictions. I didn’t realise it at the time, but my self-esteem was rock bottom, and yet it was teamed up with a peculiar belief that I would one day transform into the beautiful, successful and adored human being that I was surely meant to be, and then I would be happy. I was always looking for the ‘next thing’ that was going to fix me or make me happy – whether that was a relationship, a career, or by moving to a new place (the geographic cure).

Unfortunately, of course, we take ourselves with us wherever we go. And, deep down, I felt that I was ‘not ok’.

I put on masks to try and hide this – even had a career as an actor - but it was fear and low self-image that really drove me. I ran from my uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. Nothing satisfied or fulfilled me, or not for long. I had no acceptance of life as it was. I lived in the future, trampling on every precious now-moment in the dust of my chase for the happiness I craved. And my happiness was always elsewhere. I couldn’t accept others as they were. Most of all, I had no acceptance of myself. In truth, I didn’t really know myself. I was prey to great highs, followed by drastic lows.

Turning points – letting go

Many of us have moments in life, which have the potential to be turning points.

Some people experience it through unforeseen circumstances, others due to the consequences of their obsessions, addictions or stress-heavy pursuit of success. These moments are like a ‘pause’ in the frantic action of our fear-led minds, or a little crack where tiny rays of inspiration may shine through. It always happens in the present moment. And it always involves some kind of surrender, where we stop fighting everything and everyone, including ourselves.

Some of us have multiple rock bottoms before the pause that makes the difference. When my own came, there was no shining light or huge lightbulb moment, and the improvements that it led to were very gradual. It was of the ‘educational variety’, as psychologist William James put it. However, this pause would ultimately start to transform my way of being. It is an ongoing transformation. And it involves a battle with acceptance and surrender.

This one small word, ‘acceptance’ helps me come to terms with life as it is, myself as I am, and others as they are.

These three forms of acceptance turn out to be just different faces of the same thing.

“Our very first problem is to accept our present circumstances as they are, ourselves as we are, and the people about us as they are. This is to adopt a realistic humility without which no genuine advance can even begin. Again and again, we shall need to return to that unflattering point of departure. This is an exercise in acceptance that we can profitably practice every day of our lives.
"Provided we strenuously avoid turning these realistic surveys of the facts of life into unrealistic alibis for apathy or defeatism, they can be the sure foundation upon which increased emotional health and therefore spiritual progress can be built.”
 Bill W (co-founder of AA) (Grapevine magazine 1962)

At this point we need to be honest: there are significant difficulties for most of us with the idea of acceptance. Some situations, people or circumstances just seem overwhelmingly wrong. They are unacceptable to us in the present moment.

So how do we reach this place of acceptance in the nitty-gritty not-always-pretty reality of life?

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The Process and the Progress

Like grief, there is a process and there are stages along the journey. It is important to note that the stages don’t always follow a linear path, and we may need to repeat or revisit certain ones numerous times before finding our own peace.

1. Acknowledging

There is no use ‘trying’ to accept a person, place or situation, if our head and our hearts are screaming ‘This is unacceptable!’ or ‘It’s not fair!’ If we first acknowledge how we are really feeling, there is a kind of release and acceptance about it. We accept that we can’t accept. This often shifts something within us – an inner resistance softens. It is about having compassion for ourselves.

In this acknowledging process, we can do some personal excavation and ask ourselves why this situation, place or person feels unacceptable to us? Often we will find hurt and fear of some kind at the very bottom of it.

2. Surrender and asking for help

This stage brings us to a gradual, or sudden, realisation that – in the present moment – our situation, a person or a place is the reality of our lives. It is as it is, whether we like it or not. Wanting it to be different, the desire to hide from the reality, is resistance to what is: life on life terms. I know, for myself, I have always wanted life on MY terms.

Resistance to how things are in this moment is what causes the suffering we experience. And it is fruitless suffering, because the resistance and the fact of our suffering will not change the reality one little bit.

However, we might need help at this stage. It can be found in various different ways: seeing a counsellor or therapist, talking to a wise mentor or friend who can help us work through our feelings, even exploring the internet for suggestions and help. For some of us, being in the present moment of Nature might help us gain a wider perspective. Or if we have any kind of spiritual leaning, we might call on our Higher Self, or a Higher Power, a Divine Wisdom to help us find the surrender point.

When we reach for this surrender, we might not do so gladly. There may be sadness, anger or tears that go with it, but something within us will have changed.

There is an important distinction to be made here, and one that was a turning point for me when a wise mentor introduced it to me: acceptance does not mean approval.

3. Acceptance, not approval

It might sound contradictory, but it is possible to accept something as it is right now, but not agree with it or approve of it. Accepting reality does not mean that the person, place or situation is right, kind, fair or even legal! Traumatic events in our lives come under this category, and very sensitive handling is needed in these cases.

But life is as it is. Events that have happened cannot be changed. How could it be otherwise, unless we start talking about multiverses and alternative realities? Right here, right now, accepting this brings a kind of peace – even if our hearts are sore.

And finally…

4. Make choices

Once we have gone through these stages of acceptance, it can feel like the blinkers on our eyes are slowly coming off. Our perspective widens, and we may start to remember all the good things we have in our lives, big or small. It also frees us up to assess our choices.

Here, there is another acceptance needed because there really are only two choices – with a potential third sub-choice:

a. Accept the person, place of situation as it is because – right now, at least – there is nothing we can do to change it

If what we are trying to accept is ourselves, then by this point we will have recognised the low self-esteem and fear that may be lurking underneath our behaviour and actions. It is that feeling of being ‘not ok’ somehow, that we are fundamentally flawed. This is where we can change things by learning that all human beings are created whole and perfectly OK. We are human, with helpful and unhelpful character traits – just like everyone else – but this does not change the fact that we are intrinsically ‘ok’.

When we can accept that sometimes we behave well, sometimes not so well, we can begin to ‘right-size’ ourselves. We are neither better nor worse than anyone else, and our core being will always be ok. Here, then, is where we can begin to build our self-esteem. It takes most of us a life-time to develop low self-esteem, so we can’t expect miracles overnight.

The feeling of being less-than may rear up many times, but using affirmations – such as ‘I am ok’ – can really help if practised in the moment we recognise low self-image affecting our behaviour and emotions. Even if we then go on to change some self-defeating behaviour, such as fear, or apologise for behaving badly, we still need to accept ourselves as we are right now and affirm that we are ok people. No useful change will be possible without it. Beating ourselves up is not an option!

b. Change the things we can

There might be something we can change immediately. Certainly, we have already made one change: our attitude to the situation we are in. And this can make all the difference. As we have discovered, this process of acceptance widens a perspective that may have become severely narrowed and blinkered by our resistance and suffering.

Some may comment that we could try to change things without going through a process of Acceptance. However, very often the changes we make from a place of resistance are not the wisest ones, or in our long-term best good. They may end up being a sticking plaster over a wound that needs to be cleansed first.

The third choice is a mixture of the first two:

c. Accept right now, look to change at a future time

Throw those curtains wide

We may be in a situation that we would rather not be in, but with acceptance we can see that the door is open to possible change in the future. We might not be able to make any changes immediately, but perhaps we can work towards it, or imagine a time when it will change. ‘This too shall pass’, as the old saying goes. It is what we call Hope.

Without the light of Hope, our lives lack a vital ingredient for growth and well-being. Acceptance is the process by which we can come out into the sunlight again.


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