What does it mean when a friend, family member, or therapist tells you that you need to try to accept a situation you're struggling with? Is this reasonable advice, or is it just annoying and impossible?
Acceptance is a key concept and a good step toward effective coping with a tough situation, but it has to be properly explained. Friends and psychotherapy clients to whom I propose acceptance of their respective difficult situations say things like, "If I accept that I drink too much, if I accept my partner leaving, if I accept my chronic pain, doesn't that mean I'm just giving up--that I'll become an alcoholic, that I'll be alone forever, that my pain will take over my life?"
Acceptance does not mean passive resignation. Resignation means giving up because you've decided that there's nothing you can do about your situation, whereas acceptance simply means that you accept that your situation happened. It doesn't mean that you like what's happening or that you don't wish it were different, but once you give up the resistance and denial, you can take the energy you were spending on struggling and use it to decide how to respond or what to do next. In this way, acceptance can be liberating.
I had a client who had a problem with binge drinking at social gatherings. When he attended events with unlimited alcohol (e.g., his work Christmas party, a wedding with an open bar), he invariably drank way too much and either made social faux pas or became physically ill and left early, both outcomes that caused him significant distress. Friends had suggested various practical strategies to him, such as setting a number-of-drinks limit in advance, not sitting near the bar, and alternating each drink with a glass of water; the strategies worked well, but he rarely applied them. Why? Because applying a strategy required acknowledging to himself that he had a problem; instead, before a party, he would tell himself that he could handle it, that the open bar wouldn't be a problem for him this time. After some work on acceptance, my client was able to accept the fact that he had a binge drinking problem; he began using the strategies consistently, significantly decreasing his distress and effectively eliminating the problem behaviour.
I had a client whose partner left her. She was unable to accept that the relationship was over, and spent a ton of energy on begging and threatening phone calls, emails, and texts, trying to get her ex to come back. The months during which she couldn't or wouldn't accept the end of the relationship stalled the necessary grieving process and prevented her from moving forward. When she finally accepted that her relationship was over, she was still sad and disappointed, but she also felt some relief--the struggle to hold onto the relationship was over, freeing up mental space that she used to look for a new apartment, consider dating again, and start settling into her new circumstances.
Finally, acceptance is a big issue for chronic pain patients. Unfortunately, chronic pain can often only be managed, not cured, and at some point, most patients are told that some degree of pain will always be present and that they need to accept it and find ways to adapt. This is hard, and many patients continue to consult specialist after specialist, seeking a different diagnoses or new treatment options. Eventually, with or without psychological help, some patients come to accept the diagnosis of chronic pain; they are then able to take the time and energy spent on resistance and medical consultations and redirect it toward improving quality of life and learning to live well despite pain.
Acceptance sounds easy but isn't. It takes significant strength and motivation to let go of how you think things should be or how you wish they were, and to work wisely and effectively with your reality, especially when you don't like it. Accepting can be the hardest and bravest thing you can do.