Prescribed often times as a routine meditation, the Serenity Prayer (familiar to recovery culture) asks a Higher Power to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
The concept of acceptance, which is highlighted by this prayer, is often times met with confusion and misinterpretation by the clients I serve clinically.
As a therapist, I am routinely challenged with questions from clients about the utility and application of this sometimes elusive concept. Recently, I sought gently to encourage a client to accept, not avoid, a situation that was causing him anxiety. He responded that “to accept means that I need to just give up and not change a thing.” This client illustrates a common misconception associated with acceptance: that to accept one’s circumstance is to passively resign to it.
To the contrary, authentic acceptance is a powerful tool that facilitates a non-judgmental psychological stance that makes room for the full spectrum of internal and external experiences; to re-direct one’s energy towards embracing one’s whole, “unedited” story and the unpredictable nature of life itself. In my years working with these young men, I have witnessed how the resistance of emotional pain often translates into –and can be expressed– as debilitating depression. It is the paradox of avoidance. In a well-intentioned effort to subjugate pain, feelings of worthlessness, isolation or hopelessness, a client’s essential vitality or life-force may be subjugated as well.
What acceptance is not is often a more useful way of describing the principle to clients. Acceptance is not resignation. It does not mean you have failed. It does not mean you must tolerate suffering. Acceptance is an orientation. I communicate to clients that it is about learning how to differentiate that which is a fact from that which is mutable. For instance, the harms that were perpetrated in active addiction are frozen in time, but how these young men work to amend those harms are in their charge today. Acceptance is–at its very core–empowering and can provide an action-oriented “map” that guides value-based responses to current life stressors.
As clinical sessions progress with time, ideas of acceptance naturally begin to infuse the dialogue in different forms. I might pose the idea of choosing acceptance. One client once surprised me with an apt question, “Where do I start?” I responded, “Today.” “How?” he questioned almost inaudibly. And thus began a journey of transformation as this client’s humbling gesture of willingness gave way to open-heartedness, the very center-piece of acceptance.
MEAGHAN GORMAN – LMFT