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How To Feel Better When Life Gets Hard - by Tad Lusk, LPC

How To Feel Better When Life Gets Hard - by Tad Lusk, LPC

“Even the unacceptable is acceptable.”

– Lao Tzu

Sometimes life is just hard. Sometimes things just feel stressful no matter what we do. Obstacles or unexpected difficulties come up from time to time that are not immediately in our control.

When this happens, it can be easy to become discouraged or overwhelmed. We feel powerless. We ask, how can I feel better? How can I feel happy again? How can I feel better about myself?

But here’s where we get into trouble: forgetting that we actually always have the power of choice. We can choose how to interpret and respond to situations; choose what we think about, what we tell ourselves, and how we act.

One of my favorite quotes is from holocaust survivor, influential psychologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, who wrote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The freedom to choose your mindset is something that no event, no circumstance, no person can ever take away from you.

In this case, we’re going to explore the choice to accept, and I’ll explain in more detail what that means.

But first, think back to a time when you were struggling; a time when everything just felt hard, when you were in a slump, when nothing seemed to be working in your life. Maybe you felt like you had bad luck. Or maybe you were doing your best, giving your all, working extremely hard and were just overwhelmed by all the stressors and responsibilities weighing on you.

Maybe it was a time in the past, or maybe it’s happening now. In either case when life throws lemons (or hurls rotten tomatoes), we have two fundamental choices of mindset: acceptance or resistance.

I also love the Lao Tzu quote above from the Tao Te Ching (often called the “wisest book ever written”). Well over 2,000 years ago, Lao Tzu spoke to something universal and timeless that each one of us still has to contend with: What is our relationship to what is?

In other words, when we call something “unacceptable,” or even have a vague thought or belief that something is unacceptable, we’re resisting it. And resistance creates suffering, struggle, frustration, tension, heartache and headaches.

Maybe you’ve heard this one from the great psychologist Carl Jung:

“What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”

This is because resistance requires energy. By putting your energy and focus on whatever you’re resisting, you’re giving it your time, effort and mental capacity. It therefore looms larger as you become aware of it, and the “problem”–whatever it may be–seems bigger and more frustrating. It feels like more of a struggle.

What you put your attention on grows—positive or negative.

Now, it’s important to emphasize that I’m not saying you should simply ignore things. But consider for a minute the difference between pain and suffering.

Pain is stubbing your toe, getting burned, losing a loved one. In other words, pain happens. It’s a natural part of life. However, suffering can be thought of as pain amplified, sustained, and prolonged. Suffering (although most of us experience this too) is not actually necessary. Suffering stems from resistance and struggling against whatever is painful or difficult. It’s calling something “unacceptable.”

Sometimes in therapy, “when all else fails” so-to-speak, it can be helpful and even transformative for people to learn and practice a concept called “radical acceptance.”

Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)–one of the most widely used and supported evidenced-based approaches in psychotherapy–explains radical acceptance this way:

Radical means all the way, complete and total. It is accepting in your mind, your heart, and your body. It is when you stop fighting reality, stop throwing tantrums because reality is not the way you want it, and let go of bitterness.”

It’s also important to understand what radical acceptance is NOT.

Radical acceptance is NOT:

  • Always being “positive.”
  • Forcing yourself to “like” or enjoy something that you don’t.
  • Giving up.
  • Making zero effort to change yourself or the situation.
  • Staying in an unhealthy or abusive situation.

Rather, it’s simply acknowledging the reality of something, whether you like it or not, and then figuring out what to do from there.

Another way to understand this concept is to picture a plane going down in a tailspin. It’s plummeting toward the earth in a downward spiral. If you were piloting this plane, your first instinct may be to fight and strain and struggle to regain control–to do anything you can to muscle that plane back to stability. But the way to safely correct and keep the plane flying is actually to let go of the controls, in order for the plane to recover and right itself naturally.

When you can accept the reality of something that’s unpleasant on the surface, you open yourself to possibilities of learning, growing, and changing for the better.

There are many benefits to acceptance:

  • Increased sense of calm and peace
  • Less reactivity and stress
  • Less helplessness and more hopefulness.
  • Confidence that comes with knowing you can navigate any difficulty or stressor without becoming overwhelmed or ‘losing control.’

But the best way to experience the benefits is to try it for yourself.

Try It:

  • Acceptance is an internal decision. If you can identify something you’re willing and ready to release your resistance to, take a deep, calming breath and say to yourself “I accept the reality of ___.” Notice how this feels.
  • Come up with a “mantra” and say it to yourself regularly. A mantra is a reminder–a short phrase that can help you refocus. Examples might be, “Whatever happens, it’s okay.”  “I’m okay.” “I don’t mind what happens.” “I can accept anything that happens.” “This too will pass.” Try creating your own that really works for you.
  • The next time you experience a difficult emotion, try accepting it. Allow yourself to feel it. Allow the sadness to wash over you, or allow yourself to feel scared or worried. Simply allowing a feeling to be there for a time without resisting it (but also not wallowing in it or pouring extra energy into it), can actually lighten the feeling, and allow it to pass naturally.

What Do You Think?

  • What are you currently holding onto as “unacceptable?”
  • What are you resisting, forcing, or struggling against in your life?
  • What would you like to be able to accept?
  • What might happen if you were able to accept it? How might you feel?

Share in the comments!

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