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Karen Stewart, MA, and David Stewart, PhD, are psychologists who work with individuals, couples, groups, and organizations in their Durham practice.

Acceptance, Compassion, Patience

By Karen Stewart, MA

Karen Stewart, MA

Acceptance – Compassion – Patience. These are the qualities I hope to cultivate in 2020. They seem to be what I need most right now to live the life I want to live: a life where I am fully present, kind to myself and others, and patient with what seems like excruciatingly slow progress. These qualities are so important to me that I want to examine only one at a time—beginning with Acceptance.

All three qualities are difficult but perhaps acceptance is the hardest. I want the world and myself and other people to be different. That is simply the truth. At the world and national level, I want our leaders to take actions necessary to deal with global warming. I want countries to resolve conflicts peacefully. I want all people to be treated with respect and dignity. I want all adults to earn a living wage, and to have access to good health care, paid time off for vacation, illness and maternity/paternity leave. I want all children to have good childcare, schools that help them to achieve their full potential, and parents whose basic needs are met so that they are able to meet their children’s needs.

 At a personal level I become very upset when I witness or hear about injustice, discrimination, violence, poverty, child abuse, and neglect. When serious illness, harm, betrayal, or death threatens those I love, I can feel overwhelmed by worry, grief, anger, or fear.

When something is wrong (according to me), I can feel consumed by my reaction—feelings of anger and grief and self-righteous thoughts. I can immediately react, but those reactions are rarely helpful or effective and more often than not have unexpected negative consequences. Alternatively, I can get so caught up in my reaction that I get stuck in the experience. After a time, because I find negative feelings unpleasant, I try to squash them, repress them, push them aside. Unfortunately pushing aside feelings can also result in pushing aside the original cause for concern and losing connection with others. The cycle of overwhelming feelings, repression and distancing keeps me in a helpless, hopeless place wanting to avoid thinking about the problems altogether.

Acceptance offers a different path. If I can accept and work through my reaction, I can get to a place of calm, see more clearly and decide on a right course of action.

Accepting the situation means accepting and focusing on my reaction:

  • What do I feel in my body? Looking inside to really describe bodily sensations: a heavy heart? headache? stomachache? tightness in my throat?
  • What are the emotions I feel? anger? sadness? distrust? anxiety? fear?
  • What are the thoughts that come to mind? blaming? judging?

Sometimes remembering times in the past when I have had this same reaction can help clarify the underlying issue. The issue may be abuse of power, injustice, deception, betrayal, or the uncertainty and fragility of life. If I can accept and validate what I feel, I settle down. As I calm down, sometimes my view of the situation will shift a bit and I am able to see things more clearly. From this place of calm, I can more effectively decide if I need to take action and what that action might be. I do not get stuck in frustration, painful emotions and helplessness, but can act to make things better. For a concern at a national level I might give money to a cause, attend a rally, write a letter. Personally, I can be with others who are in pain without needing to protect myself. I can hear more clearly what they want and need and decide if I can meet that need.

Acceptance used to feel like giving in and giving up, saying that it is okay for the world to be the way it is. I no longer see it that way. Acceptance is the first and most important step towards making real change, being healthy and whole. Acceptance means living in reality, not wasting time railing against it. Only from being grounded in reality can I be fully aware of all that is. Only by accepting and processing my outraged feelings and reactions can I use that energy in a useful way. Only by really connecting to my own grief, anger even despair can I deeply connect with others.

Acceptance makes it possible to move forward. I can be with others experiencing pain, or act wisely and effectively in situations that need to change. Most importantly when I don’t close my heart to pain it is also more open to all that is good around me. There is space for everything and deep gratitude.

Of course, my assumption that I know what is best reflects tremendous hubris. My view of what is right is just that—my view. Everyone has their own view of what the world should look like. By accepting reality, my feelings and thoughts can also help me to be more accepting of other reactions. This does not mean agreeing with them but rather listening to them with respect and curiosity and working toward mutual understanding. This is the only way to compromise and lasting constructive change. Defensiveness, rigidity, and maligning others are unskillful, ineffectual behaviors when it comes to working together to solve the myriad of problems we face.