• Is What I’m Doing Working for Me? Acceptance and Willingness

    August 2017

    In the wake of the recent heartbreaking events in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, I watched reactions on social media and on television, and was struck by the way people have been responding to the crisis.  My intention here is not to provide additional commentary or analysis of the politics of the situation. Rather I would like to use the events of this past weekend as a counterpoint to a more effective way of dealing with crisis situations in our own lives.  it is evident that our current way of handling the cultural crisis as a nation is not working. If anything, the rhetoric and emotions are escalating to a fever pitch, as the battle lines become more entrenched between opposing political viewpoints, lifestyles and religious beliefs. 

    A person once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. If things are going to change we must find a new approach. Dialectical Behavioral (DBT) therapy addresses how to deal with crisis situations by using what are called Distress Tolerance skills or crisis survival skills. While there are multiple distress tolerance skills at our disposal, I would like to focus on only two; willingness and radical acceptance.

    A crisis is a painful event, urge, or feeling that you are powerless to change right away but must tolerate and live through without making things worse. A crisis can mean different things to different people. For many people the death of a loved one, loss of a job, health issue or a natural disaster present a crisis moment. Some people, on the other hand, some people exist in what seems like a perpetual state of crisis. To feel overwhelmed is to feel normal. To cope with their extreme feelings, they resort to problematic behaviors such as substance use, impulsive sexual encounters and other risky behaviors, and self-harm such as cutting, picking or scratching, pulling their hair out or other behaviors to “release the pain” to get a sense of release. While these coping behaviors appear to work initially, over time they become maladaptive, and cause significant problems in all areas of their lives.

    We all have ways that we deal with strong emotions and crisis situations. Often, it is not the crisis but our reaction that causes problems. The first step in implementing any behavioral change is using the skill of Radical Acceptance. Radical, in this sense, means complete, total. With every part of your being. Acceptance means to stop fighting reality and acknowledge the way things really are. It is what it is. Acceptance does not mean approval or accommodation. You don’t have to like the way things are, but you do have the choice to accept them. To do otherwise is to make yourself suffer. Suffering is holding on to getting what you want instead of accepting what you already have. It is taking normal pain and intensifying it. It’s like trying to run on a leg broken in two places.

    Why do we have to accept reality as it is? Because rejecting reality doesn’t change reality. In fact, we become mired in bitterness, resentment, anger, shame and other painful emotions.  Accepting reality is the first step in changing reality. There is no such thing as a pain free life. We cannot prevent painful events and feelings from coming our way.  What must be accepted? Reality as it is in every situation. How often do I have to practice acceptance? Constantly, moment by moment if necessary. Remember, it’s not about liking the mess we’re in, but we do have to acknowledge the mess when we see it. Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it like this; “Admitted that we were powerless over alcohol and that my life has become unmanageable.”. There are only two things in life we can control; own actions and our own attitude. It’s one thing to be concerned about other people and events in the world, but we are wasting mental energy if we spend our life trying to control and manipulate other people and events to your own liking. Instead of trying to beat the hate out of someone, or win a debate, curse and belittle them, wouldn’t it be worth the effort to try asking them what it is in their life that has led them to this point? What led you to come to believe that it is okay to behave/think/speak like you do? 

    A byproduct of accepting reality is Willingness. One way to think of willingness is to “check the facts”. Is this way of dealing with things really working for me? What do I gain from it, and what are the drawbacks? Is it effective, meaning does it solve the problem in a healthy way? When discussing the spiritual growth of recovery, Step Eight of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states the alcoholic “Made a list of people that he harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”. 

    Willingness is the openness of mind to do what is necessary and effective in any situation. Sometimes that may involve taking specific action, at other times it may involve doing little or nothing. Willingness is holding on to things in your hands with the palms open and facing upward as opposed to a clenched fist. It is the opposite of willfulness, which you can find on display on any cable news show every night. It is a never-ending episode of Seinfeld’s Festivus Airing of Grievances (“I’ve got a lot of problems with you people!”). 

    Willfulness demands control, tries to fix every situation, and refuses to accept reality. Willingness is concerned with being effective. Where a willful person must always be right and win every conversation, the willing person is concerned with understanding and being understood. Willfulness is rigid and inflexible, willingness is open and malleable. Willfulness talks, willingness listens. Willfulness resists pain at all costs (even though resistance itself is painful), willingness accepts pain as a reality of life and understands that joy and grief can reside in the same heart at the same time.

     Willfulness fights to keep the status quo, willingness accepts change, including the pain it can bring. Willingness is solution-focused. Also, maintaining a willing mindset opens a person up to being more accepting. Acceptance and willingness feed each other. 

    By now you probably realize that what I am calling skills are also attitudes that can be developed and cultivated. You also may realize that at one time or another you have already been accepting or mindful, but you never viewed those attitudes as skills. You may ask, “How do I practice them?”. The short answer is whenever you find yourself being willful. There will be times when willfulness feels completely normal. Keep in mind that you always have a choice in how you respond. When you realize what your doing isn’t working you can change your approach. And your mindset. 

    There is no such thing as a therapeutic booster shot; incorporating new thoughts and behaviors takes continuous effort and involves trial and error. Remember, acceptance and willingness go together. Unfortunately, the opposite is fully on display currently in the larger culture. We can continue our current path and intensify our pain. Or we can try a new approach. To bring about positive change on a larger level, it must start with the individual. Should you find yourself lapsing into a perfectionistic mindset, your being willful and you are making yourself suffer. Acknowledge and accept where you are, and then be willing to change your point of view and your behavior, and move forward. It’s all part of the human experience.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this posting. There is so much more that could have been written on this topic. If you would like to find more information about dialectical behavioral therapy, I used information found in the DBT Skills Training Manual (Second Edition) by Marsha Linehan, to write this post. If I can be of any further help to you please email me at scott@recoveringhopecounseling.com .

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