By Margaret B. Moss
If you have been alive at least a few years, you have learned there are things that you can neither change nor control. Learning to accept certain things requires a combination of surrender, strength, self-love and a kind of a focused imagination.
You don’t argue with the tides; they are inevitable. You don’t judge trees because they are bent. You don’t get angry at water because it’s wet, or quarrel with rocks because they aren’t supposed to be so hard.
And yet we fight with ourselves all the time. Most of us judge ourselves reflexively, and have an ongoing dialogue in the back of our heads. “Did I sound stupid?” “Am I too fat, too thin, too [fill in the blank]?” “Why did he break up with me when we are so perfect for each other?”
One of the challenges of being human is to discern that boundary, and sometimes permeable layer, between what is possible to change, and what must be accepted with grace (like rocks). That boundary is often subtle. The serenity prayer sums it up quite elegantly.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The trick, is of course, discerning/discovering that difference. We think of ourselves – in the grand scheme, compared to, for instance, snakes and sloths – as quite powerful. Humans are amazing creations – with our brains, limbs, opposable thumbs, and so on. No other living thing on this planet can shape their environment the way humans can.
Thinking on a more micro level, we often don’t feel so powerful; the micro level where each of us struggles to keep ourselves safe, fed, and clothed within a complex society of other humans with competing or nefarious interests.
Looking more deeply at ourselves as individuals, it is easy to see how we relinquish our power of discernment; to forget what should be accepted and what can be changed if we set our minds to it. [And I’m talking about mindful, caring, high-functioning people, for whom the norm is to perform meaningful work and who cares for others and him/herself.]
We make so many millions of decisions – many as a matter of habit; I’ll call them nano-habits. (Milk or cream? Grey suit or blue jeans?)
Let us step back and acknowledge all that we do:
● Our jobs: go to work, buy the groceries, help kids with homework, call someone to fix the roof
● We have self-care: eating right, exercising, medical and dental needs, our beauty “things,” our mental and emotional health.
● We have larger priorities: Is now the right time to ask for a raise? Should I look for a more meaningful job? How to help boost Richie’s wavering self-esteem?
● We have relationships to maintain with our Most Important People. These can be blood family, spouses/partners, children, or our own made-up families of unrelated people that we love.
And that doesn’t include major stressors: the negative (death, loss, disease, divorce, job loss), as well as positive changes (marriage, moving, new jobs, new babies).
So it’s obvious why it may be difficult to sort through what we can (or should) change and what we can’t. Sometimes our lives feel so hectic, we feel like we don’t have time to think.
Some circumstances are clearly out of our control. When we get sick, we are forced to put things on hold, and it is apparent to others that we are sick. When you vomit, you might moan, “why did this happen today?” But you don’t judge yourself, “If I was smarter or had a better personality… I wouldn’t be sick.” We are temporarily out of control. We accept it. We have no choice.
So why is it that when we get depressed – “sick in the head” – we judge ourselves for it? When we feel deeply sad, we often judge or disapprove of that very emotion. “Get over it.” “Man up.” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
Here we get back to that fine line between what we can control and what we can change.
I think of myself and my emotions like my own “weather system.” Even when it’s raining on Earth, the Sun is still out there shining; there are just clouds blocking our view. When we’re depressed, our Best Selves still exist; but our “light” is muffled by our own “clouds” — sadness, pain, regret.
Here’s the “fine line” part: I’m suggesting a dual approach.
☞ Acceptance of what is.When the clouds move in, notice them as you would notice dark clouds in the sky. “Yep, looks like rain.” Watch your own dark thoughts as an uncritical observer. “Yep, I feel like I’m caving in.” And then breathe. If you with other people, remain calm and excuse yourself as soon as possible. Find a quiet spot. Think about what’s happening without judgment.
Ask yourself some questions: What triggered this? Is there anything I need? Am I beating up on myself? Am I repeating a negative pattern? And then take care of yourself, without judgment. Maybe you have to cancel a meeting, or just phone in. Maybe it’s deciding to put off some work for the rest of the day and curl up somewhere warm with a book. Maybe it’s cancelling social plans with a friend to give yourself some space.
☞ Gently guide yourself into change. In the physical world, we can’t change the weather. With our own weather systems, however, there are rituals and practices to help the clouds recede or at least give ourselves a chance to dry off. Here’s my list:
● Take care of your body. Eat well, drink water, and get lots of sleep.
● Exercise in whatever way you like — move. Walk, ideally someplace that’s not too crowded or noisy, and try it without headphones, so your walk can also be a time of self-reflection.
● Clear your mind. Take quiet time to meditate, walk, just sit and think.
● Change the channel. If you are obsessing over a regret, lost lover, or anything else, practice changing the channel. So if your ex-lover’s favorite song comes on the radio and it makes you think of him, change the station.
● Journal. You don’t have to “be a writer” to journal about your thoughts. Whatever they are—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Writing things down is a way of taking them out free-float mode, and pins them down so they stop circling around in our brains.
● Release and cleanse. If you’re angry at someone, write a letter to say how you really feel, but do not send it. If you’re overwhelmed by too much “stuff,” make a list. If you’re stuck over a decision, make a list of pros and cons.
● Be nice to yourself. Give yourself a little treat; not compulsive shopping or a few vodka tonics, but maybe a little splurge. The little things can be surprisingly cheering.
● Count your blessings.
After some of these things are handled, you will be in a better position to ask yourself, “What can I change?” Do you need to make any major changes, or just tweak a few things? Make big bold moves, or take baby steps? Do you need to forgive someone? Do you need to forgive yourself? Would it be useful to see a therapist, join a yoga class, sign up for an art workshop?
And finally, you are in a better position to be clear about what you must accept as beyond your control. Of course it will not always be clear. In your relationships — whether it’s a spouse or a manager at work with a bad temper, you can’t control the other person — but you can control your reactions and feelings. That takes practice and mindfulness — the power of discernment. Maybe you will decide that you must end a relationship because you are no longer aligned with that person. You don’t have to judge him. He doesn’t have to be wrong, and you don’t have to be right.
Focus on your well-being, boundaries, and sanity. And then maybe you’ll begin to understand that acceptance can be the beginning of the best part of your life.
Margaret B. Moss is a freelance writer and editorial consultant, who lives in Farmington, CT. She’s the creator of the blog, Life’s a Dance