A flat tire, a rainy day, an unexpected loss…such events are outside our control. Every now and then, life deals us an unfortunate hand of cards. It’s up to us to decide how we are going to respond.
If you find yourself feeling worried, grieved, or bitter when unfavorable circumstances arise, you are well within your right. It’s completely natural for people to feel upset when bad things happen. After all, we’re only human. The good news is that we don’t have to stay in that headspace for very long. Instead of loathing and resisting circumstances we can’t change, we can learn to accept them.
In this article, I will unpack the meaning of acceptance, explain its importance, and recommend several tips that are sure to help you cope with any challenging event that may come your way.
What is acceptance?
It’s important to distinguish acceptance from embracing. To accept something is to receive it, but it’s possible for the act to be devoid of emotion.
You don’t have to feel positive about a situation in order to accept it. You can acknowledge that something has happened, or will happen, without jumping for joy. There’s a certain freedom in that – especially when it comes to devastating circumstances like the diagnosis of a chronic illness. Celebrating that news would be odd and insensitive – perhaps even a little sadistic.
In the same way that acceptance isn’t necessarily a warm welcome, it’s also not a passive act of surrender. To accept something doesn’t mean you have given up. It doesn’t mean you have to stop fighting against an unfortunate situation. To accept something means you have come to terms with it, and even if it never changes, you can experience peace.
For instance, I’ve struggled with acne for years. I used to pick my skin so badly that I couldn’t bear to show my face in public without makeup on. I’ve tried everything under the sun to clear up my face and control my picking, but even after decades of experimentation, I still don’t have clear skin.
A few years ago, I recognized the extent to which I had been allowing acne to interfere with my life. It kept me from making overnight trips, going to the beach, and participating in sports. Even though my acne continues to bother me, I have finally accepted that it may be a part of my life for many years to come. That doesn’t stop me from trying new products, but it does allow me to partake in activities I would have previously declined.
The importance of acceptance
Denise Fournier, esteemed therapist and professor, says it best:
Failing to accept reality creates suffering where there is already pain.Denise Fournier
Denying the existence of circumstances that are very real and uncontrollable is dangerous. It causes us psychological and emotional distress, and it interferes with our ability to cope.
Denial also has the ability to disrupt our relationships. For example, if a couple learns they are going to have a child with special needs, but one partner cannot accept that reality, it becomes impossible for the two of them to seek resources and support as a team. The lack of solidarity is bound to cause tension in their relationship.
Refusing to accept circumstances you can’t change is also a waste of time and energy. Obsessing over solutions that will never come can generate feelings of helplessness and despair. When difficult events transpire, it’s only logical to try to accept them. Otherwise, you may find yourself unable to move on or return to a state of rest.
This is also why it's not a good idea to try to control everything.
How to accept things you can’t change
So as it turns out, there are multiple benefits to accepting things you can't change. But it sure does feel difficult. Therefore, here are 4 strategies that will help you come to terms with the things you can't change in your life.
1. Identify the silver lining
In 2019, the film Five Feet Apart was released in theaters. Although the events in the movie are fictional, they are inspired by the experiences of a real person – Claire Wineland. Slushy in hand, I sat down and watched two teenagers with cystic fibrosis live loudly in spite of their potentially fatal disease. The main characters Stella and Will must maintain their physical distance, as exposure to germs may lead to respiratory failure and other complications. They find creative ways to communicate and spend time together.
One of the major themes of the story was to make the most of life’s circumstances, no matter how dismal they may be. Stella and Will could have remained confined to their hospital rooms, ruminating, sulking, and worrying. Instead, they chose to build a relationship that ended up greatly enhancing their lives. Neither one of them could change the fact they were ill, but they were able to identify the silver lining in their situation: Because they had cystic fibrosis, they found each other.
Searching for the benefits in a difficult situation is scientifically proven to yield positive results. In a 2018 study, adolescents with chronic pain reported better mental health, less pain, and a higher quality of life after intentionally looking on the bright side. If you find yourself in an unfavorable situation, examining it for even an ounce of virtue is guaranteed to increase your wellbeing.
2. Focus on what you can control
Unfortunate circumstances often leave people feeling helpless, but even in the midst of unpredictable or worrisome times, there are still things you can control. Some of these include:
- Your actions.
- Your attitude.
- Your boundaries.
- Your media intake (which we've written about here).
- Your priorities.
- Your words.
This year, I quit my job as an educator without a concrete backup plan. I knew it was somewhat reckless, but my health was suffering so much that I felt as though it was my only option.
It took me longer than I anticipated to find full-time work that aligned with my schedule and my values, so I was forced to dig (quite uncomfortably) into my savings. Consequently, I have had to make some lifestyle changes to accommodate my decreased income. Living paycheck-to-paycheck isn’t ideal, but it’s the reality of my situation while I rebuild my savings and continue to search for a better opportunity.
In the meantime, though, I can create happy moments for myself.
- I might have to eat at home most of the time (I normally enjoy going out), but I can purchase and cook food I love.
- I may not be able to get my nails done, but I can have a spa night at my apartment.
- I might have to write in the evenings after working all day, but I can do it while sipping on a glass of wine from the comfort of my bed.
- I can choose to view this season of life as a stepping stone toward my goals instead of resenting it.
This principle is applicable to you, too. You have more power than you might think, so consider which small factors you can change instead of focusing on the ones you can’t.
3. Pursue community
There are billions of people in the world. This means no matter which uncontrollable circumstance you are enduring, it’s likely there’s a whole group of people out there experiencing it, too. A therapist once told me that my suffering was not unique. In the moment, it felt a little invalidating, but she didn’t mean for it to be. Her intention was to comfort me with the fact that I was not alone, and that if others have survived similar pain, I could, too.
Finding a community of individuals who have similar experiences to your own can have a positive impact on your mental health. It provides people with the following benefits:
A community can be established in person or, in many cases, digitally. There are a ton of professional support groups and organizations dedicated to helping people connect, as well as informal groups formed through social media platforms or other websites. It might take some exploring, but finding an empathetic, understanding community can be extremely helpful for processing tough circumstances and eventually finding hope – especially in cases of grief or battles with mental health.
4. Improve conditions for others
One of the most admirable ways to go about accepting your own unfortunate circumstances, in my opinion, is to improve conditions for others like you. Just because you may be struggling doesn’t mean people in a similar position have to – or at least to the same degree.
Take two-time U.S. Paralympian Jarryd Wallace, for example. After being diagnosed with compartment syndrome at 18 years old, he learned his lower right leg would have to be amputated. He bought a running blade shortly after his recovery and began competing in Para athletics.
With a list of impressive records under his belt, it would be natural for Wallace to remain preoccupied with his own goals and performance. However, he developed a passion for empowering other disabled athletes. He joined Toyota’s initiative and even started the A Leg in Faith Foundation – both of which raise money for future Paralympic athletes. Wallace couldn’t change the circumstances surrounding his disability, but he could (and does) invest energy into supporting other people like him.
💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇
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At some point, we are bound to endure situations we wish we could change. Accepting these circumstances is integral to our own well-being and ability to cope. Some realities may seem impossible to accept, but with the right strategies, you can achieve a sense of tranquility in the midst of difficult times.
Now I'd like to hear from you! How do you go about accepting things you can’t change? What's your favorite tip? Let me know and leave a comment below!