A wise mentor once told me “People come to therapy when they have an unsolvable problem that must be solved.” Can you relate to this dilemma? At one time or another in our lives, we all struggle with something that causes us difficulty or suffering and that does not yield itself to being solved, at least not in any way we can find. Common struggles include our relationships, family, career or school, health, weight, feelings, anxiety, and insomnia, to name a few.
When we are faced with a problem, difficult situation, or frustrating person in our lives, it is natural to seek a solution by trying to change it/her/him. When our efforts to do so fail, too often we blame ourselves. This is natural, too, but what if it is not our incompetence but the nature of the situation that makes it so hard to change what we want changed?
We humans are natural born problem solvers. And we are often quite good at it. We start to think that we can “fix” everything about ourselves and our lives. The problem is, some things (and people especially!) do not lend themselves to being “fixed.” We find we need a different approach than the problem-solving one. Acceptance is that approach.
The power of cultivating acceptance is widely known. So much so that it in psychology, many different theories and schools of thought advocate for its benefits. These include: Humanistic/Client Centered Therapy, Cognitive Therapy, Interpersonal Process, Solution-Focused, Mindfulness, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
It is helpful to first clarify what acceptance isn’t. It does not mean you approve of, like, or condone what you accept. It means that you adopt the radically difficult perspective that you acknowledge and accept yourself and reality as it is in this moment. Acceptance can be applied to our past (what has happened) and our present (what is happening now) but not the future. In this way, acceptance is freeing rather than limiting. It opens us up by accepting that we do not know what the future will bring.
Acceptance is not resignation. It is not giving up bitterly. It is allowing ourselves to see honestly the nature of the situation and to stop wasting our energy fighting what has already happened. Acceptance is value- and judgment-free. It is seeing something as neither good nor bad, it just is. Acceptance is making peace with what is.
A tricky and wonderful paradox: When we accept someone and something as it is, it can change. Why? Because when we stop fighting reality, we get all our resources back. When we accept how things are in the present, we are freed of their power over us. We can chose to stay as we are or to make changes because we know we can accept whatever those changes bring. No more self-condemnation for making a mistake, no more being upset about the way things are since we now know: 1) We can accept and handle the present situation and 2) The present does not necessarily determine our future.
So go ahead, begin to gently notice when you are tempted to try to fix things and people in your life that are cannot be fixed and gently begin to practice accepting yourself and things as they are. Please remember, full acceptance is an ideal goal. It is not something you will do easily or naturally at first. Give yourself time and approach this task with curiosity and patience. In time, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised with what you find.
If you find you cannot solve an “unsolvable” problem in your life, know that you don’t have to keep trying alone. Seeking a qualified, expert therapist who can provide guidance through the confusing and arduous process of acceptance can lead you to healing and peace.