By: Laura Miller, LMSW
In a recent blog, mindfulness, a practice of purposefully bringing your attention to the present moment and being aware of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations without judgment was discussed. This practice can be used to reduce stress and improve mood. Mindfulness benefits may be especially important throughout the holiday season, as the advertised most “wonderful time of the year,” can also be incredibly stressful. This year has likely included even more stressors than past years and perhaps significant unwelcomed change due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many holiday traditions might look entirely different this year; perhaps you’re gathering in much smaller groups, celebrating alone or unable to travel. With so much change, this holiday season might require a larger skill set, including both mindfulness and ways to tolerate and accept the unwanted change that has occurred.
At times, change can be exciting, for example, when one chooses to move to a new city or start a new job, however when change comes unexpectedly or without any desire, (i.e. losing a job or being unable to travel for the holidays due to COVID-19 restrictions) change can be painful. Depending on the circumstances, your reaction to change may vary from excitement to sadness. Yet in all cases, your attitude toward the change affects your experience of it. The good news? You can improve how to cope with change by recognizing (or being mindful!) of your reaction as the change occurs.
In most cases, reacting to change with “willfulness” can often make the situation worse. Willfulness is ignoring reality; or rejecting the unwanted change or other painful event that has occurred. For example, you may find yourself saying, “Why me!? This isn’t fair! I’m not going to deal with this! It shouldn’t be this way!”. While this attitude is understandable (of course it makes sense to not want to tolerate and cope with a painful situation), rejecting what is happening in the moment often makes the situation worse. Rejection of pain keeps someone stuck in bitterness, anger, unhappiness and other painful emotions. So much so, that Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., the treatment developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, writes that “pain plus nonacceptance equals suffering”. Linehan coined the term, “radical acceptance”, meaning that one must accept rather than fight painful situations with mind, heart, and body and accept something “all the way” in order to cope. (Click here to watch Marsha Linehan further discuss acceptance.) Yet, acceptance of a painful situation is often not a desirable option either… keep reading to better understand how and why acceptance might help!
Why Bother Accepting Unwanted Change or Painful Situations?
1. Rejecting or denying reality doesn’t actually change reality. Although avoiding a painful situation or denying what is happening might make you feel better in the moment, it doesn’t actually change what is happening. Resistance and or the willpower to ignore pain won’t actually help change the painful situation.
2. Changing reality requires first accepting reality. Fighting reality often interferes with one’s ability to be able to see the painful situation clearly. For example, if one refuses to accept that COVID-19 may interfere with their holiday traditions and that they will need to take safety precautions over the holidays, one might not properly prepare or take the necessary precautions, potentially resulting in even more difficult to manage and painful situations. Accepting the facts of a situation can be helpful for future coping and problem solving.
3. Acceptance May Lead to Sadness (at first) but deep calmness and freedom follows. Coming to terms with the reality of the situation can result in sadness, it’s hard to acknowledge painful events as true. Allow disappointment and/or sadness to arise and be kind to yourself by using self soothe skills. Although incredibly difficult, once one accepts what’s happening and stops fighting reality, the amount of effort and mental energy that was going into fighting the situation no longer has to work so hard. At times, no longer fighting the situation can result in a calmness. Ultimately, accepting what is happening and living in reality offers a sense of freedom where you don’t have to feel controlled by willful thoughts like “why me?” and “this isn’t fair!”.
4. Acceptance decreases psychological suffering. Acceptance has been found to have significant psychological benefits and as Marsha Linehan, PhD indicates “reduce suffering.” Accepting experiences as they occur has been linked to improved psychological well-being, life satisfaction and decreased depressive and anxiety symptoms.
Even with the understanding that acceptance has benefits, it is still incredibly difficult. Remember, that acceptance is not the same as approval nor is it minimizing the emotional difficulty that may be associated with the painful event. Furthermore, accepting reality is not giving up nor giving in, in fact, it’s quite the opposite; it’s accepting what is happening so that you can then choose how you want to cope rather than resigning to the pain of the unwanted situation.
How to Accept Unwanted Change:
1. Observe willfulness. Notice when you are having difficulty accepting change and painful situations and describe what you are having difficulty accepting without judgment. At times, it can be easy to fight reality without even realizing that you are doing it. Acknowledging that you are not accepting, is the first step to later acceptance.
2. Remind yourself that you can’t fight reality and consider what you need to accept. Remind yourself that fighting what’s happening in reality doesn’t change reality and begin to consider what it is that you are actually having difficulty accepting.
3. Practice Accepting. Practice letting go of the tension in your body (check out these relaxation techniques) so that you become more open to acceptance. By relaxing your body, you can also relax your mind and become more open to acceptance. Begin to think about what you are accepting and imagine yourself accepting the situation entirely. Practice saying out loud “yes, I can handle this!”.
You can also check out this step by step guide to radical acceptance .
Similar to mindfulness, acceptance is also an ongoing practice. At times, acceptance can last a moment or two, and then willfulness can pop back up (i.e. Ugh, but do I really have to cope with this?!”). Continue to observe when you’re willful, and be willing to “turn the mind” to acceptance and make an inner commitment to continue to accept reality as it is. You may find yourself turning the mind over and over again back to acceptance, and this is okay. Acceptance is a difficult process, yet it comes with high reward when suffering can be reduced.
Remember, be kind to yourself this holiday season. You are not alone in facing these unprecedented challenges. Make an effort to spend extra time taking care of yourself and don’t hesitate to ask for support when you need it.
From all of us at Behavioral Psych Studio, Happy Holidays!