“Everything I’ve ever let go has claw marks on it.” -David Foster Wallace
In his 1978 book “The Road Less Traveled,” M. Scott Peck’s first sentence, a paragraph unto itself, reads “Life is difficult.” He goes on to say that life is only difficult because we think it should be easy – and that once we accept that life is supposed to be difficult we transcend it.
That’s a tough pill to swallow, that all we have to do is to “accept” or “let go” and everything will be okay. We decide that the only reason things are barely holding on in our lives is because we’ve been controlling everything so tightly, and that to let go would implode our lives entirely. But my years as a psychotherapist have continued to teach me, over and over, that acceptance is the only REAL control we have. So the question isn’t how to control, the question is how to accept?
Spiritual philosophies have been trying to teach acceptance for millennia, whether the “let go, let God” idea in Christianity, “going with the natural ebb and flow of the Universe rather than trying to fight against it” in certain forms of Judaism, or the “Four Noble Truths” of the Buddha. Here are four ideas to help you move toward acceptance right now, no matter what is happening at any given time.
1. Your thoughts become your world.
Everything we feel is based on the perspective we take, whether it’s grief and loss (I want the person to still be here) or frustration with people (I want that person not to act that way). When we shift perspective by changing our thoughts to be more balanced and rational, we can affect our emotions and thus our entire experience of the world.
If I lose someone I’m close to, it will more than likely be very painful. As I move through my own grief process, it becomes less painful as it turns to acceptance – I may shift into an appreciation of the times I had with the person and a celebration of what they meant to me, for example.
In Book IV of “Meditations” (c. 161-180 CE), Marcus Aurelius wrote “The Universe is change, our life is what our thoughts make it.” This idea that our thoughts create our world is not new information, the concept seems to have been around for as long as we’ve had recorded human history (and we can probably safely assume since before then as well).
Still, we often refuse to believe that we can change, using phrases such as “that’s just the way I am” or “I’ve always been this way.” If this is truly the case, then there would be no growth, we would simply play out our nature for our entire lifetime. We are inspired by example after example of people overcoming difficulty and growing and changing through that process, but we still feel that while maybe those folks in the stories can change, we ourselves are stuck in thinking and behavior that is unchangeable. It’s just not true.
2. Nothing has any inherent meaning – it’s all created by you.
Let’s go back to the loss of a loved one example – if you lose someone close to you versus more distant from you, your emotion changes. If an acquaintance of yours loses someone close to them, it means very little to you compared to your own loss of someone close. That means that even death, as profound as our emotions can be around it, doesn’t have any meaning per se, other than the meaning that the observer of it creates.
We create distressing meaning and emotions for ourselves because the feelings are so strong and because they elicit pain. Because we feel them, they must be true. However:
3. Your emotions, while always valid, are not necessarily based on any “truth.”
Because emotions often carry with them so much physical pain, we decide they must be “true.” This, however, is not necessarily the case. In fact, you’ve probably had an experience in the last few weeks where you said to yourself “why did I get so upset/angry/sad?” If we can shift perspective within a few minutes or hours of a situation, that’s a clear indication that the situation itself did not contain the emotion, rather our perspective did.
The key is to shift perspective into more balanced and rational thoughts. It’s not that our emotions aren’t important, rather it’s that we can choose what emotions we want to feel in any situation. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In fact, no one can make you feel ANYTHING without your consent.
4. When you take responsibility for your emotions, you change your entire experience of the world.
If that person who cut you off in traffic on your way to work today “made” you feel angry, their driving mistake has an incredible amount of power over you. Are you comfortable giving your power away like that? Do you have to?
When we realize that our emotions are under our own control and we can decide how to feel in any given situation rather than letting the situation dictate our feelings, we effectively take our power back. From that powerful position we can learn to set healthy boundaries, be more compassionate and empathetic toward others, and ultimately find more happiness every single day.
These concepts are just the start of changing your life to be more calm and fulfilling, and they aren’t nearly as easy as they seem on the surface. Changing our perspective requires the ability to step back and observe what’s going on with ourselves in emotional moments, and with that observation be able to make even small changes. As we make more and more of those small changes, they begin to have a big impact on our self-esteem and our interactions with others and with the world.
Ryan M. Sheade, LCSW is a psychotherapist in Scottsdale, Arizona and the founder of Integrated Mental Health Associates, a thriving mental health practice that was built on the mission of providing open, professional, and (above all) effective mental health treatment for all. He is the former Clinical Director of the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS and he has held many volunteer board member positions in the Phoenix metro area. He has also taught clinical classes such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Family Therapy, and Assessment of Mental Disorders in the graduate school of Social Work at Arizona State University.