Acceptance first, problem-solving next

The most crucial step in dealing with any problem that crops up is accepting that it’s happened, and nothing's going to change that fact. That might sound obvious, but we spend a lot of time when difficulties arise or bad things happen wishing things were different. We're stuck listening to that internal voice that says, “No, I don’t like this. I want it to stop. I wish it hadn’t happened and that everything would go back to how it was before.”

We’ve all been there; I certainly have. You lose your job, a relationship ends, a parent dies, your cat dies, you break some treasured family heirloom, you are hurt in an accident. It’s not long before you start to regret it, feel sorry for yourself, look back to the time before the incident, and think, “If only...” This seems to be a universal human reaction to bad thing happening. From what I’ve read and heard, people in most cultures experience it — I haven’t heard of any that don’t as a general reaction.

From my experience, there are two basic types of bad situations — ones your actions contributed to in some way, and ones that were out of your control. How you react to these in the sense of who you blame and how much responsibility you take seems to depend on your sense of self (ego) and individual agency. In other words, how much control you think you have over what happens to you and how you react to it.

I’ve generally found the bad situations that I have contributed to, especially if they were the direct result of my actions, the hardest to accept. That's when I really go overboard on the recriminations — “Why did I do that?” If they also affect someone else, it’s much, much worse than if it affects just me. For example, if I went to prison it would be bad for me, but possibly worse for my family. What could I possibly do that would result in a stretch in prison? Whatever it would be, it would be shameful for my honest, law-abiding family. The separation could also be difficult for them. However, I think this is a situation where my acceptance of my situation could be made more difficult by their involvement. They could be angry or sad or ashamed, and dealing with their emotional needs would keep the focus on the acts that got me into this situation, rather than dealing with the actual situation.

I’m more sanguine about situations that I have little or no control over. Two serious medical conditions — emergency surgery to stop an aneurysm haemorrhaging and killing me, and being diagnosed with incurable cancer — took very little effort on my part to accept the reality of. In the case of the surgery, I didn’t have time to fret about the situation, and I had my normal reaction of going with the flow of what was happening. Despite ending up in intensive care for 24 hours, I wasn’t bothered by the experience. I just accepted it and went along with it.

In the case of the cancer, my doctor initially told me I possibly had another serious disease, which was a bit of a shock, although I came to accept it fairly quickly. When he confirmed the actual diagnosis of something equally incurable and more likely to result in my death, I think I was well prepared for it by having dealt with the reality of just how serious it could be.

Dealing with the emotional fallout from my family was not as easy. When my wife and I told our children, we knew they would be upset, and they were — but not as upset as we feared. They had a lot of questions, and came back with many more, and being able to have them answered helped them understand what was happening. It also helped them accept it, although they still wish I didn't have it. In fact, throughout my treatment, I found myself sometimes tending to other people's emotional needs when they became upset with the situation. I found this odd because it’s not what I expected to happen, but I imagine it’s not unusual.

As a result of me accepting the situation, I found my treatments generally went smoothly and I was unconcerned with what was happening to me. In fact, the only time it got to me was when I was in hospital one time feeling particularly shitty, and got a bit down. After a couple of days I told myself to stop feeling sorry for myself and get a grip. This actually worked and I started feel less unhappy quite quickly. Of course, it could also have been because I was starting to feel better physically.

Other people I know who have had serious illnesses have found it harder to accept and they have struggled emotionally. The strongest feeling many of them have is the sense of being a victim of something deeply unfair. The other is fear. It’s a terrible combination that can crush a person’s spirit, making it so much harder to deal with the reality.

I believe at the core of the feeling many people have of being trapped as a victim is the lack of acceptance of their situation. “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “It's unfair.” Unfortunately, some people stay trapped in that way of thinking for a long time. For some people, it’s their default way of viewing the world and they are caught, emotionally helpless, their whole lives.

I’m not making any claims to being anyone special when it comes to this — these are just my experiences and the reactions I had without really analysing why I was having them, or making any conscious decisions to accept the situation and not fight it emotionally. I have, on many occasions, resisted the existence of a situation — both big and small. For all of us, resisting what has happened is a well ingrained habit we have learned from birth, which is reinforced by the society around us.

I know terrible things happen to innocent people. But, as long as we stay in that mode of non-acceptance, we cannot move onto a proper solution or resolution. Acceptance doesn’t mean passively accepting that the situation is OK, and not doing anything about it. Of course, we take action. But, until we still that little voice that keeps saying “No,” we can’t switch our thinking to what we can do about it. Only when we openly accept what has happened, without wishing things were any different, can we focus fully on a solution.

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