All of us experience pain. This pain might stem from losing a loved one, losing a job, ending a relationship, being in a car accident or undergoing any other kind of trauma or situation.
Pain is inevitable. It is part of being human. Often, however, we add to our pain and create suffering, according to Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, in her book Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions & Balance Your Life.
In the book, Van Dijk focuses on four sets of skills in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which was developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. Van Dijk shares insights on everything from validating our emotions to being more effective in our lives to getting through a crisis to improving our relationships.
We create suffering by not accepting reality. For instance, we say things like “It’s not fair,” “Why me?”, “This shouldn’t have happened” or “I can’t bear it!” writes Van Dijk, a mental health therapist in Sharon, Ontario, Canada.
Our instinct is to fight the pain, she writes. Normally, this instinct is protective. But in the cases of pain, it backfires. We might avoid our pain or pretend it isn’t present. We might turn to unhealthy behaviors. We might ruminate about our suffering, without doing anything about it. We might turn to substances to forget the pain.
Instead, the key is to accept your reality. “Acceptance simply means that you stop trying to deny your reality and you acknowledge it instead,” Van Dijk writes.
Acceptance does not mean that you approve of a situation or that you don’t want it to change. Acceptance is not a synonym for forgiveness, either. It doesn’t have to do with anyone else.
“It’s about reducing your own suffering,” Van Dijk writes. So if you were abused, you don’t have to forgive the person who abused you. Acceptance means accepting that the abuse occurred.
“Acceptance is simply about whether or not you want to continue spending so much time and energy experiencing all of these painful emotions about a situation,” she writes.
Forgiveness is optional, according to Van Dijk. But acceptance is necessary for moving forward.
Acceptance also doesn’t mean giving up or being passive about a situation. For instance, Van Dijk shares the example of a woman who was dating a man who didn’t want to get married or have kids. However, she did. She was hoping that he’d change his mind. After two years together, she realized that she had to accept the reality of her partner’s decision. And she had to decide whether to stay in the relationship or find someone who wanted the same things.
As Van Dijk writes, “We can’t act to change things until we recognize them as they really are.”
Acceptance is powerful. Once we accept reality, our anger tends to decrease. The painful situation loses the power it has over us. While the pain doesn’t go away, the suffering does.
Here’s a list of additional tips and insights on how to accept reality from Van Dijk’s thoughtful must-read:
- Make a commitment to yourself to accept the reality of a certain situation. Notice when you find yourself fighting back and saying things like “But it’s not fair.” Don’t judge yourself for not being able to accept your reality. It’s natural for our thoughts to return to this place. Like learning any new skill, it takes time, practice and patience. Acceptance doesn’t happen overnight. More painful situations will take more time and practice.
- Refocus on acceptance. Remind yourself that you’re choosing acceptance and why this is important to you. You might say to yourself, “It is what it is. I decided to work on accepting this situation because I don’t want to have this power over me anymore. I’m going to keep working on accepting this.”
- Make your own list of things you’d like to accept. Start small with situations that are less painful. This helps you practice and builds your confidence. For instance, start with accepting that you’re stuck in traffic, standing in a long line or have to change your plans because of bad weather.
- Try breaking overwhelming situations into smaller pieces that are easier to accept.
- Focus on the present. Don’t try to accept something in the future, such as “you’ll never have a long-term relationship.” We have no idea what the future holds. Instead, you might work on accepting that you’re currently not in a relationship — if that’s bringing you suffering.
- Don’t try to accept judgments. Van Dijk worked with a woman who said she was having a hard time accepting that she’s a bad person. She came to this conclusion because she used drugs and couldn’t accept help from loved ones. But what she really needed to work on accepting were these realities – not the judgment of supposedly being a bad person.