Accepting the good and the bad

What is acceptance?

Derived from the same root in Latin as 'acquiescence', acceptance is a related word which means being able to handle reality. Sometimes, it may be that you are faced with some personal problem which seems to be a much bigger issue than it is. By accepting it for what it truly is, it becomes possible to move on, psychologically speaking. In other words, acceptance is not merely putting up with things, or consenting to them, but managing them. As such, it can be much more proactive than you might think. Crucially, acceptance of a situation usually means dealing with a negative thought or condition without battling with it. That said, there are various forms of acceptance which come into play in different situations.

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 What are the main types of acceptance?

Self-acceptance is one of the main types of acceptance that psychologists focus on. This is because it helps people who are unhappy with themselves or their situation to acknowledge their position and then make strategies to move on. Social acceptance is another important one whereby a social group will accept a newcomer despite any perceived differences. Then there is psycho-spiritual acceptance. This, itself, comes in various forms and might include the acceptance of certain truths, such as the inevitability of bodily death, for example. One of the teachings of Buddha is that all life is suffering, something that must be accepted.

How can acceptance help with mental well-being?

Let's look at something that typically comes up when an individual is trying to improve their mental well-being by practising meditation or focussing on positivity, for example. Newcomers to such practices often try to banish thoughts that come into their head when they are trying to relax. Alternatively, they might bottle up negativity emotions because they think they should only allow positivity to reign. In such cases, it can lead to the long-term detriment of mental health. Instead, accepting thoughts and negative emotions is likely to be more effective. Acceptance of them is essential, really, since bottling them up does not truly deal with them.

Acceptance and moving on

Accepting something means you have taken your first step on the road to moving on from it. Before we accept something in the psychological sense, it is still controlling us to some extent. Sometimes it might be really hard to accept a truth or a situation, but by getting to grasps with the fact that it is how it is, you are starting to release yourself from it. Acceptance is a big part of letting go and is important in order for change and personal growth to take place. It can be uncomfortable at first, but by accepting something we can sometimes also feel a sense of relief.

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How to embrace acceptance

Like other aspects of psychological well-being, acceptance is something to practice every day. By accepting relatively modest things, you will get better at it and consequently able to accept harder truths down the line. It is a way to rid yourself of any worry, stress, and anxiety produced by situations and facts that you actually can't do anything about anyway. Remember that accepting something does not mean affirming it or liking it. It is nothing more than the recognition of truth. Finally, accepting something does not mean you are limited by it – you can still change things about yourself, after all.

Why is acceptance hard?

In some cases, accepting something as a bald reality is quite easy to do. We all might accept at a rational level, for example, that we have flaws in our character. We might also know at some level that something we are doing is not quite right for us or that it is causing anxiety or guilt. However, as soon as emotions come into play, accepting the true nature of the situation necessarily becomes harder. This is because we do not always think as we feel. We might not be able to accept having a character trait like being vain at an emotional level, for instance, even though all the evidence might point towards another conclusion. In the end, accepting something means coming to terms with the truth, and that is not always easy, regardless of the emotional state of the people involved. As such, you should show kindness to yourself if you are finding accepting something hard – it is something that many people would recognise from their lives and be sympathetic with.

Will acceptance set you free?

In some senses, accepting things about yourself and your situation will be liberating. If you can accept all of yourself – including the bits that you may not like very much – then you will be in a much better position to show forgiveness towards yourself. Accepting yourself is a bit like being able to see the good and bad in friends only, in this case, within yourself. This is freeing because it means being able to form a friendship yourself, warts and all, accepting the parts of you which, in some cases, you may have been more inclined to ignore for years. In other words, if you want to free yourself from self-criticism and even self-loathing, then self-acceptance is a good place to start.

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Why must acceptance be absolute and unqualified?

This is a tricky question to answer from a personal perspective. In law, accepting the outcome of something, such as a legal argument or a judicial decision, must be absolute and unqualified so that further arguments about them are shut off. After all, continuing to disagree about something in law is not a true acceptance of it at all. The same goes for personal forms of acceptance to a degree. If you claim to accept something like the death of a loved one, for example, but you know that you don't in your heart of hearts, then it is not really something you have come to accept at all. In turn, this will mean you cannot proceed through the stages of loss and grief, certainly not in a full way that will end up with a positive resolution to such emotions. That said, accepting things in a partial or nuanced way is the reality for many, many people so you should not chide yourself if you cannot accept all situations fully. Appreciating this about ourselves is a form of self-acceptance, after all.

What is the first step to acceptance?

According to the British author, JK Rowling, understanding is the first step to acceptance. In her view, therefore, there is an intellectual role to play in the human psyche before we are able to truly accept something. Understanding, in this sense, might mean gaining better or more informed comprehension of the reality of a situation. However, a further interpretation is possible insofar as understanding may imply a form of intellectual as well as emotional intelligence. In this sense, understanding how one feels about something may be part of the first step to accepting the reality of it. This is why many psychologists and counsellors will often explore people's emotive states to try and get them to comprehend how they feel about situations, as well as what they know about them when they are trying to get them to accept their realities.

What role does social acceptance have to play with mental disorders?

Many people who treat mental disorders agree that being socially accepted can make a big difference in the ability to recover. This is often thought to be down to the fact that mental health issues are so often misunderstood by wider society. As a consequence, people who suffer from them are often shunned in a social sense. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression worsening as people feel cut off or abandoned and lack a sense of belonging. As a result, being accepted socially – and the particular disorder being accepted, too – will often lead to a fuller and longer-lasting recoveries.

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How is acceptance explained in Islam?

Although the word 'Islam' is often translated into English as 'voluntary submission' before God, it can also be interpreted as 'acceptance'. In this sense, the entire religion can be described as one, which means accepting the reality of God into one's life, something which is done on an entirely voluntary basis. This echoes some of Jesus' teaching, which placed a great emphasis on accepting God's will. Nevertheless, Islamic traditions tend to place a greater emphasis on the direct relationship between believers and their acceptance of God. In this sense, the Islamic belief in being accepting of the one true deity, as all of the Abrahamic religions insist upon, could be seen as something that is much closer to simple faith in God.

What does acceptance mean in the Stoic tradition of philosophy?

The Stoics, who gained notoriety in ancient Athens in the third century BCE and who were later upheld as great examples by many leading Romans, were often focussed on the benefits of being more accepting. Their concept of eudaimonia, which roughly translates as blessedness, was frequently described as being able to accept the present moment without distractions caused by thoughts of fear or pleasure. Within this world view, being accepting of the current situation – indeed, any given situation – is said to be something that is a virtue or, in other words, a good thing. This view is said to have been an influence on early Christians, notably Saint Paul. Nowadays, being stoic is a term that we often apply to people who are unemotional or able to continue with what they are doing without emotional distractions. In reality, however, it ought to be used when referring to people who accept their reality without question.

What books on acceptance are worth reading?

Many books deal with the concepts related to acknowledging and accepting the realities of life. A good place to start if you are interested in literature about the Stoic traditions of eudaimonia is 'Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium' by the first-century Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or Seneca the Younger as he is also known. The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, wrote the widely read 'Meditations' which had a profound impact on later Western thinkers, notably John Stuart Mill and Goethe. 'The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are' offers a much more modern take on what it means to be accepting of oneself. Written by Brené Brown, it was first published in 2010. 'Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself' by Kristin Neff deals with many similar themes.

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Acceptance Summary

To conclude, accepting something really means coming to terms with the reality of it. This is not always easy to achieve, and it may even cause some mental strain along the way. However, in the vast majority of cases, the ability to accept something, no matter how unpalatable, will mean feeling more at ease with a situation. Of course, critics of acceptance would argue that this means putting up with states or situations which could – and ought to be – improved. So, there are always two ways of looking at it from a psychological or philosophical perspective.

Historically, encouraging people to accept their lot in life has been a form of social control. Telling people at the lower end of the social scale in a feudal society to accept the 'natural order' of things may have meant they were happier to live their lives with limited scope. That said, it was also probably done – wittingly or otherwise – to keep them in their place. On a more personal scale, however, being able to accept realities which are outside of one's control can be very empowering.

Furthermore, accepting the reality of something does not necessarily mean that one accepts that it cannot be changed even if it may take some time and effort to do so. For example, a spiritual and political leader like Mahatma Gandhi accepted the reality of British colonial rule over India during the Second World War and temporarily stood down many campaigns for independence at this time, only for them to pick up once more after that conflict had come to an end.

To take this example and extend it to a more personal level, accepting something on a time-limited basis or until something else happens to change the reality of it would be entirely possible. The key to this form of accepting reality is not to lose sight of the fact that all things change and, therefore, the way we accept them necessarily needs to be adapted and updated, too, as time goes by.

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