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I have been talking to a number of people recently who either have a disability or chronic illness, have experienced some form of abuse or have experienced dramatic changes in their lives (i.e. loss of job, loss of a loved one, a divorce, etc.) and have been reaching back to access recommendations from my time in psychotherapy and come to the conclusion that for me, and perhaps others, before we can take one step forward, we have to practice acceptance of what came before.

Whenever I’ve talked about acceptance, whether within the realm of peer support, advocacy or mentoring, the first response I usually get is “acceptance means giving up” and a lot of hysterical justification for not being willing to even so much as talk about ‘acceptance.’

So, what does ‘acceptance’ mean?

  • – the mental attitude that something is believable and should be accepted as true.
  • – the act of accepting with approval; favorable reception.
  • – the state of being acceptable and accepted.
  • – (contract law) words signifying consent to the terms of an offer.
  • – (banking) a time draft drawn on and accepted by a bank.
  • – a disposition to tolerate or accept people or situations.
  • – the act of taking something that is offered.

For example: When a person is diagnosed with a chronic illness or a disabling condition there is usually a flood of emotion. People become angry, sad, resentful, they feel hopeless, worthless, they can experience depression, grief, etc. It is natural for us to feel sorry for ourselves, to become jealous, envious, of people who don’t have the diagnosis we have. We can easily lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’ and suddenly our lives, our world, is reduced to that one particular health issue, disease or condition. We lose sight of everything else in our lives that is good and fulfilling. This, too, is natural.

The same can be said for those of us who lose a loved one, who find ourselves enduring a divorce or losing a job and for those of us who’ve survived abuse.

It’s easy for us to begin to measure the whole world and everyone around us with the narrow scope of whatever obstacle we suddenly find ourselves confronted with. This is really a form of self-sabotage.

Accepting the situation we find ourselves in, is key to being able to move forward and to prevent us from ‘narrowing the scope’ through which we measure the world around us. What do I mean by that?

When I was first diagnosed with my disability I refused to allow it to change me, to have an effect on me or the way I lived my life. I tried to ignore it, deny it and keep behaving as I had prior. It wasn’t long before I had hurt myself, before I had exacerbated my condition, thereby reducing my ability to function even in the most cursory way, to complete daily living skills. My conditions progressed.

When I escaped child abuse by leaving home and striking out on my own, I tried to deny the affects of the abuse on my mental state, emotions and the way I interacted with people. I put up a strong front and effectively pushed people away, isolating myself. I convinced myself that I had not been ‘damaged’ by my childhood, that if I acted strong I would be strong and my life would be unaffected.

In both situations I had to face the fact that my way of handling the challenges before me was wrong, wasn’t working. I was unhappy, depressed, feeling like a failure, I was sabotaging my ability to grow and move forward, creating more challenges, rather than responding to them.

During therapy I was introduced to the idea of ‘acceptance.’ It was explained to me that we can’t conquer that which we don’t acknowledge. That made sense. I learned that we have to accept the challenges before us, for me that meant accepting that I’m now disabled – that I can’t do the things I once did or that I have to find a different way of doing them and that I needed to accept that my psyche had been damaged by abuse – that I didn’t process my emotions, consider the feelings of others, interact in ways that were appropriate, that would allow me to have successful and meaningful relationships.

Only when I realized I had to acknowledge the conditions that were impacting my life, daily living, happiness and relationships with others, did I become open to creating new strategies in my approach to life, friendships, relationships, parenting, working, etc.

Accepting my disabilities and the limitations they create really allowed me to learn to adapt. Rather than struggling to do things the way I always had done them and hurting myself or becoming depressed because I wasn’t able to accomplish what I had previously, I learned to adapt my surroundings to my needs, to adapt a new way of approaching daily living skills. Accepting my disabilities and limitations allowed me to stop struggling, stop sabotaging my efforts.

Accepting that I was abused, that it negatively impacted my personality, communication skills, ability to maintain friendships and to be successful at work has really opened my eyes and lifted a burden I’ve been wrestling with most of my adult life. Accepting that I don’t have to be ‘super woman’ and carry all of that ugliness around with me has really given me a sense of relief, the sense that I can breathe, that I’m not ‘under-performing’ if I’m being true to how I feel, if I honor whatever emotional state I find myself in.

Acceptance isn’t ‘giving-up’, it’s about facing reality, acknowledging our weaknesses, and that releases us to grow, to learn to adapt, to change our expectations of ourselves and others, it allows us to be who we are, to stop trying to be something we can never be and probably never were if we were to be realistic with ourselves.

To me, acceptance is facing the challenges life presents, honestly, feeling whatever emotions we have, identifying our limitations and to learn to adapt, to reduce those limitations in healthy ways, to overcome our struggles and challenges to the best of our ability. Acceptance can also be about acknowledging our limitations and learning to let go of the expectations we have for ourselves, learning to be okay with the changes we experience. Accepting that some things are beyond our control, can’t be changed and we need to learn to be ‘okay’ with that.

It’s not about ‘giving up’, but about being realistic, acknowledging, and being honest with ourselves.