On Sunday June 17 2012 at 5.15am my life changed forever. That’s when I discovered the body of my wife on the dining room floor.
As soon as I saw her, I had a knot of fear in my stomach and I knew she was dead.
I became trapped into a roller coaster of emotion while trying to cope with everyday life. For two years I sorted out the estate, did a demanding job, helped our son leave home for university, while living in a home full of memories that reminded me every day of what I had lost.
Grief – accepting the unacceptable
Two years later I had healed most of the grief. In December 2014 I was tentatively starting a new life with a new partner and investigating new career options. So how did I get through the grief?
It wasn’t easy. I learnt a lot about myself and life that I would never have willingly signed up for. What did help was seeing how a friend who had unexpectedly lost her husband struggled with grief. Even after several years she was still bitter, angry and resentful. I vowed that I would do it differently. One of the lessons I learnt was that grieving is about learning to accept what was previously unacceptable.
I don’t know about you, but growing up I wasn’t taught about the healing power of acceptance. Instead I learnt two dysfunctional ways of dealing with difficult thoughts, feelings, situations and compulsions.
Avoiding them doesn’t work
One way I learnt to ‘control’ them was to avoid them. As a child growing up in the pre internet age of the 1960s I became a compulsive reader – so much so that my mother joked that if there was nothing else to read, I would read the telephone directory. Reading took me into a more pleasant world, far from the things I didn’t want to look at.
We are all familiar with common ways people can escape from what troubles them. They include smoking, alcohol, over eating, drugs, gambling, compulsive sex or porn, TV bingeing, social media and retail ‘therapy’.
From my own experience I know that escaping from reality may make me feel better for a short time. But then the original problem resurfaces, because it hasn’t been dealt with. And there are often additional problems from the escape you’ve used, for example health issues from smoking or overeating.
Struggling only makes it worse
The second way was to struggle with them or repress them, but again this only made it worse. Adults teach children that they should be able to control their feelings. When you grew up you probably heard expressions like:
“Don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
“Take that frown off your face.”
“Don’t worry, there’s no need to be frightened.”
According to Psychotherapist Russ Harris, “the implication of all these phrases is that you should be able to turn your feelings on and off at will, like flicking a switch. And why is this myth so compelling? Because the people around us seem, on the surface, to be happy. They seem to be in control of their thoughts and feelings. But ‘seem’ is the key word here. The fact is, most people are not open or honest about the struggle they go through with their own thoughts and feelings. They put on a brave face or keep a stiff upper lip.”
Russ Harris is one of the leading proponents of Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT). ACT gets its name from one of its core messages: accept what is out of your personal control and commit to action that improves and enriches your life.
He’s made a short and humorous 3 minute animated video on how struggling with your feelings only makes it worse. The gist of it is that if we have a feeling like anxiety and try to control it, the problem just keeps growing.
Only when we accept something can we let it go
I struggled for 10 years to stop smoking. I’d go cold turkey and fight every urge to just have one cigarette. And I’d end up having just one cigarette. Except of course there is never just one cigarette, and I’d be back to smoking again.
The way I stopped was by accepting my urge to smoke and choosing not to. I also had help from hypnotherapy and became a hypnotherapist.
Loving and accepting yourself as you are is a more powerful way of bringing about change than criticising, judging and fighting against yourself, which makes you feel bad. When you feel bad you want to self-medicate by using your dysfunctional survival system – eat more cake, have another cigarette and so on.
This idea that acceptance is essential for the healing process is not just found in psychotherapy. It’s found in self-help manuals, indigenous healing practices, and in many spiritual paths. To be blunt, the inability to accept reality creates confusion where there can be clarity, anguish where there can be peace.
As the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book puts it: “When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me. I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.” Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book), 4th Edition, P. 417.
For me it’s most clearly expressed in Secrets of Aboriginal Healing, by Gary Holtz with Robbie Holtz. I love this book that tells the story of a physicist with multiple sclerosis, given two years to live by his doctors, until healers in a remote Aborigine tribe heal him. It contains the simplest explanation I’ve come across about the healing journey and what a person needs to do to heal.
Here's one of the healers, called Rose, explaining acceptance to Gary. “We all have things about ourselves that are not pleasant to look at. But if we don’t look – and we don’t accept – we can’t heal. Only through total and unconditional acceptance of the self can healing take place.”
Gary replies: “I don’t know if I can accept my MS. Isn’t that what I’m here for – to fight it, to make it go away?”
“No,” she contended. You’re here to accept it, then let it go away.” Rose goes on to tell him that the issue we have is trying to teach us something we need to know, to move closer to wholeness. There are no problems, only chances to learn. That includes the negative people in your life – they also can teach you something you need to know.
Only when we accept something can we let it go. Accepting it is key before we can change what needs to be changed. Acceptance however is not about condoning or going along with what is unacceptable, such as abuse of any kind.
Where many of us get stuck is that we have a warped understanding of what acceptance is and how it works. We think that accepting something means getting over it. But this isn’t the case. Being willing to accept that someone we love has died, for example, doesn’t mean skipping grief. It doesn’t mean minimising the power of what happened or how you feel about it. It simply means acknowledging what is, without resisting or denying it.
Focus on what you can control
According to Russ Harris, “A lot of us get stuck because we focus on what is outside of our control. The more we do this, the more disempowered we are, and the more frustrated or disappointed or angry or anxious we feel. In contrast, the more we focus on what’s in our control, the more empowered we are; we can actually do something useful.”
Outside My Control – accept these
Almost all my thoughts, sensations, memories, and emotions
Whether I achieve my goals
What others say and do, and how they judge me
What happened in the past
What happens in the future
Ageing, illness, injury and loss
Within My Control – act if I want to change these
How I respond to my thoughts, sensations, memories, and emotions
What I do to achieve my goals
What I say and do to influence others
How I respond to thoughts about the past
What I do to influence the future
How I take care of myself
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. What is interesting is that if we want to act on what is within our control then we can only do it now.
Best selling author Louise Hay said: “The past has no power over us. It doesn't matter how long we've had a negative pattern. The point of power is always in the present moment. What a wonderful thing to realise. We can begin to be free in this moment.”
How to practice acceptance 1. Accept yourself - acceptance is unconditionally valuing all parts of who you are. That means acknowledging all of yourself, the good, the bad, or what needs improvement. A powerful affirmation I use every day is, "I love and accept myself exactly as I am."
2. Be honest and acknowledge reality - accepting your current situation can make you less confused and lead to a better future. Understanding, accepting, and working with reality is practical and purposeful. Denying your current reality will not make it make it go away. Dealing with the challenges is an essential step to achieving your goals, they are how we grow and develop.
3. Take responsibility - it's important to acknowledge any part you have played in getting to where you are. How have you created any successes or frustrations? Try to view your mistakes not as failures but as learning opportunities.
4. Be compassionate towards yourself - everything is truly healed in the heart, with love. As Louise Hay said: “After years of individual counselling with clients and conducting hundreds of workshops and intensive training programs across the country and around the world, I found that there is only one thing that heals every problem, and that is: to know how to love yourself.”
5. Remember your strengths - if you are like me, you may find it more difficult to accept your strengths and successes, but don’t just focus on the flaws. Make a list of your strengths, the things you are good at, the values you hold, and the accomplishments you've achieved. Sometimes a partner or a good friend or colleague can highlight strengths you take for granted. Remembering the positives helps you to love and accept yourself more.
6. Pay attention to your emotions - notice how it feels when you get overcritical, dissatisfied or judgmental about yourself, other people, places and situations, or focus on how unfair things are. For instance, there may be grumpiness, anxiety or sadness. Check if the emotion has a message for you. Then acknowledge the feeling, don’t try to change it, and it will start to diminish of its own accord.
7. Pay attention to your body - tension may indicate there’s something you need to accept. Let your body help you by relaxing tense muscles and physically loosening up while you think about something you’re having a hard time accepting. Try breathing in acceptance and breathing out resistance. Notice where you feel the challenging emotion in your body. Practice breathing and relaxing, and work on adjusting the unhelpful thinking that keeps you stuck.
Remember, you will never be able to create the reality you would like if you can’t accept who and where you are right now.
For information about how I can help you visit https://www.calmmindhypnosis.com/.