How to Accept the Unacceptable

The other day a friend told me about a loved one who just received a cancer diagnosis and will require chemotherapy, radiation and a life altering surgery. He’s seriously considering not treating the cancer at all.

My friend is very, very distressed by this possibility. She described the horrible, painful death that will occur. She thinks that if he just knew the details he would change his mind. She believes deciding to not treat the cancer is unacceptable. She wrote “I feel terrible. I can’t bear to think of watching him go through the suffering he’s choosing.”

I reminded her of the Serenity Prayer. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Courage is needed to be able to “speak the truth in love.” But equally important is serenity and acceptance. She might not be able to convince her loved on to change his mind. She may need to accept and live with this very painful reality.

But how can we accept the unacceptable?

Sometimes it’s necessary to accept the unacceptable. It’s a reality of life. The question is how? Psychologist Dr. Marsha M. Linehan has several suggestions. They help a person move toward what she calls ‘radical acceptance.’

  • Observe that you are questioning or fighting reality. (“It shouldn’t be this way.”)
  • Remind yourself that the unpleasant reality is just what it is and cannot be changed. (This is what happened.”)
  • Remind yourself that there are causes for the reality. Acknowledge that some sort of history lead up to this moment. (“This is how this happened.”)
  • Practice accepting with the whole self (mind, body, and spirit). Be creative in finding ways to involve your whole self.
  • Practice opposite action. List all the behaviors you would do if you did accept the facts. Then act as if you already accepted the facts. Engage in the behaviors that you would do if you really had accepted.
  • Cope ahead with events that seem unacceptable. Imagine (in your mind’s eye) believing what you don’t want to accept. Rehearse in your mind what you would do if you accepted what seems unacceptable.
  • Attend to body sensations as you think about what you need to accept.
  • Allow disappointment, sadness or grief to arise in you.
  • Acknowledge that life can be worth living even when there is pain.

Radical acceptance is a skill that requires practice.

Practice accepting that the traffic is heavier than you planned, that it’s raining on the day you wanted to go to the beach, or that you didn’t get that job that looked so promising. Practicing the skill is important for coping well and living a more contented life. It also prepares you for larger, more challenging problems.

Practicing acceptance in smaller situations also helps you prepare for acceptance in more difficult circumstances. When you practice acceptance, you are still disappointed, sad and perhaps even fearful, but you won’t add the pain of non-acceptance to those emotions and make the situations worse.

Radically accepting reality doesn’t remove pain and suffering. Instead it allows us to include it along with the rest of our experiences at any given time. In any moment we may feel grief, sadness and anger. But that same moment includes love, joy, beauty and even peace. As the Serenity Prayer says, sometimes it’s necessary to “Live one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time. Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.”

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