The Paradox of Acceptance

Photo by Animesh Basnet

Acceptance is compassionate presence – acknowledging what is without judgment. It allows us to see things more clearly. When we accept, we are saying, “Yes, this is the way it is right now.” Yet, acceptance is not resignation. When we stop struggling against the uncontrollable, we have more bandwidth to focus on the things we can control, making needed change more likely.

When we are struggling with a problem, before we can make meaningful changes, we must first accept:

  1. we have problem
  2. we aren’t in complete control
  3. we have limitations and flaws, yet we are deserving of happiness
  4. the reality of our circumstances including our resources and liabilities

Non-acceptance is a habit that can be unlearned. We like to believe things are black and white and that life consists of wanted experiences to be achieved and unwanted experiences to be avoided. So we act out this belief by doing: striving, grasping and clinging, rationalizing and re-framing, filling our lives with busyness, disconnecting or numbing out, and using compulsive habits to avoid, deny or ignore. We don’t normally get much practice in being with our experience just as it is.

This is unfortunate because even emotions that are painful can be useful. They give us important information about our interpretation of experience – like road signs warning us to pay closer attention. For example, guilty feelings may be a sign that our behavior is out of alignment with our deeper values. Lonely feelings may be a sign we need more social interaction. Insisting on only positive thoughts and emotions is not necessarily the antidote to our suffering. Excessive positivity is a form of non-acceptance and can feel downright oppressive. How can we respond with wisdom if we aren’t seeing things as they truly are?

To struggle with something is to give it energy – to breathe life into it. To let go is to be free. Acceptance is a path through self-deception, requiring courage, self-compassion, and dedication. Interestingly, finding acceptance often leads to the most profound type of change. This has been termed the acceptance paradox, which occurs when we understand that things don’t have to be pleasant or wanted to be OK. The acceptance paradox is a dialectic; a balancing of two things that are seemingly opposite – accepting things as they are while understanding there is need for change.

Ways to increase acceptance:

  • Practice mindfulness of thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and urges to action. Engage in nonjudgmental awareness of the entire stream of experience, welcoming both the pleasant and the unpleasant. Observe experience with curiosity and kindness, like a benevolent scientist.
  • Embody “sunset mind” (Steven Hayes, Ph.D.) – when we see a sunset, we don’t critically analyze it, pick it apart, and compare it all the other sunsets we’ve seen. Instead we soak in the experience of it. Experiment with practicing sunset mind in other life circumstances and see what you discover.
  • Learn to label and observe judgments rather than being caught up in them.
  • Set an intention for yourself to let go of defensiveness, distrust, blame, doubt, and shame and practice more openness, allowance, tolerance, acceptance, and trust.
  • Be kind and honest about your human limitations while giving equal airplay to your assets and your strengths. See the common humanity in our struggles.
  • Let gratitude sink in for the good that is available to you.
  • See the necessity in making mistakes, forgive yourself, and notice when the past is clouding your current experience.
  • Perform acts of kindness and compassion for others.
  • Even if you don’t believe it, behave as though you and all beings are worthy of happiness, and see how this plays out.
  • Read some books on acceptance, such as:
  • Practice shifting from judgment to discernment: There is an alternative to the critic. It’s found in the movement from judgment to discernment. Judgment is the harsh, aggressive habit that shuts down the conversation, binds us to the past and old behaviors, and closes off our access to other capacities. Discernment makes space, helps us to have perspective, and allows more of our humanity to show up. Our innate discriminating wisdom is a kind, more objective voice that is available to all of us. It can differentiate, discern, and intelligently guide and helps us navigate through life’s dilemmas. – Frank Ostaseski


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