Archives for posts with tag: radical acceptance

We have experienced an incredibly dry summer here in the Northwest. I have been reading with great concern about the fires in the Olympic National Park. The fires are burning in the rainforest. This is an area where fire is rare. But it hasn’t been rainy or snowy. I was in a section of the park a few days ago. The meadows were alarmingly brown and bare in many spots.

Fighting fires is a difficult job in any circumstances. Fighting forest fires can be quite dangerous. My husband read a book about a forest fire fighting tragedy in 1949, Young Men and Fire. The forest fighters parachuted into the Montana forest, loaded with their fire fighting equipment, which consisted of hand tools like shovels and axes. They had no water. Their job was to contain the fire by changing the landscape. The wind shifted suddenly. They were trapped. Mos of the men died.

One of the men was able to save himself by what must have required resisting every survival instinct he had. He knew the blaze was headed for him. He quickly doused the high grass around him with fuel and lit it on fire, to remove it, creating a circle of non-burnable material around him. He laid down in the center and held on tightly to roots on the ground as the blaze came to him. The convection currents lifted him off of the ground despite wearing full fire fighting gear. All the while he held fast to the roots as well as his breath to avoid fueling the fire. The fire passed because there was nothing to burn. By standing his ground instead of running away, he saved his life.

The most painful times in my mindfulness practice have been allowing myself to observe my most painful, heartbroken, angry, scary, helpless feelings and thoughts while minimizing judgment. It is still painful. But by doing my best to observe and withhold judgment, I am able to reduce the heat enough in order to withstand it. In doing so, I have not only found emotional survival but reduced suffering and at times, I even find myself to be in a place of peace.

In many ways, I am a careful person. I take pains to prevent fires. I don’t like crises. But I have learned to be more courageous and hold tightly to my roots, because there is no other way to stay whole.

It is easy to be harshly judgmental. It makes life simpler. It places a distance between ourselves and someone else’s suffering. If I can find a way to justify someone’s suffering, it buffers me from the reality that bad things can happen to anyone.

As a child clinical psychologist, I see aspects of people’s family lives that are largely invisible to outsiders. I consider their revealing these hurts, fears, and faults, as a sacred trust. This translates into a strong sense of responsibility to respect my patients and their families. I do, however, have to make judgments and interpretations in order to make diagnoses, treatment plans, and to carry them out. Sometimes I have to share difficult views, things I consider to be hard truths.

Honestly, sometimes I get frustrated with my patients, especially their parents. Those are the times that I try to reflect and observe. Why I am so frustrated? What can I do to get back to a more balanced place, the place that is necessary for my work as well as for my personal happiness?

I’ve had a couple of conversations with a friend of mine, also in mental health, about how we just don’t know what goes on in people’s lives, even those that are close to us. We just don’t know what challenges with which a person is dealing. Some of this is due to shame and stigma. Some is to protect loved ones from harsh judgment and bad treatment. Other times, we just can’t function on a daily basis if we advertise every hurt and pain. For mental health, a balance must be attained in order to live in reality. No one’s reality is all suffering, though some people have much more than their fair share.

I have been working on my judgment of myself and others in my personal life as part of my mindfulness practices. Stress and working too hard is a trigger for me to be very sensitive and hurt easily, to which I am apt to respond with harsh judgment. I can see the changes I have made in my life to decrease this but understandably, it still occurs. Harsh judgment is not something I will likely ever eliminate from my life. It will wax an wane in my own mind. My hope is that my periods of being “stuck” in it will be less frequent and of shorter duration.

I have worked on being more compassionate and accepting of myself. I have worked on being more compassionate and accepting of my husband. Now I find myself struggling with harsh judgment of my teen daughter. If I am quite honest with myself, I am finding parenting at this time of my life, to be ungratifying, not to mention the times when it’s just scary. As a parent, I am generally much above average in acceptance and patience. I know my daughter loves me, but she mostly pays very little attention to me except to ask for things and typically responds with irritation when I talk to her, regardless of the subject. I know to a large extent that this is developmental and a common feature of mother/adolescent relationships, but it is still very painful. I love my daughter and I like her a lot. I would like to be a part of her life that is not so stressful to either of us. Right now there is no ease in our relationship.

I have also worked hard on backing off, reminding her less, and better respecting her independence. I think I have done a really good job with that. I guess I had a fantasy that if I did that, she would re-engage with me and our relationship with be not only less conflict-laden, but emotionally closer. That may still happen but it hasn’t happened yet. I know that it could be much worse but for me, thinking about how much worse things could be, typically does not work as a form of self-encouragement.

I just don’t know what all my daughter is dealing with in her life. And I really want to know but I can’t. I can work to accept this but all of the positive thinking in the world is going to get me to be happy with this. But acceptance is a peaceful place and there is healing there for both my daughter and for myself.

There’s a famous developmental model in clinical psychology developed by Drs. Mark Greenberg and Carol Kusche. It is rooted in the larger cognitive behavioral model. The model is called, “ABCD”. It refers to Affect (emotion), Behavior, Cognition, and the Dynamic interplay among them. Because it is a developmental model, it refers to this interplay not only in a particular moment, but across time.

Sometimes AB and C work together in cohesion. Often they work at odds with one another. Sometimes they work in cohesion but in a way that is not healthy. “I am angry with you and I’m beating the shit out of you because I believe I am entitled to beat the shit out of anyone I don’t like for any reason.”
I know that many of us strive to live more peaceful, loving, and cohesive lives. And for extra credit, we are decent and upstanding people. I have worked hard over the years to live a life that is cohesive and healthy. I have focused on this in particular in my mindfulness practices in the last couple of years.

I am pretty happy. In general, I live a pretty balanced and cohesive life that makes sense. To be perfectly honest, I sometimes watch people I love say they want to be a certain kind of person, living by certain values, and then make choices that totally contradict their stated goals without apparent knowledge of this discrepancy. I have tried to make a habit of turning inward at these times. I am getting better at it. Bit by bit.

I decided a few weeks ago to dig deeply into the parts of myself that I try to avoid. To be honest, it is a narrow part of me but it runs very deeply, and when I hit it, it is very painful.

I know I am a good person who does mostly very good things. But there are areas in which I fail. Areas in which I let fears, irrational thoughts, and habits drive behaviors that are very much out of line with my values.

I lose my temper with my husband. I respond to situations as if they are much bigger than they really are. Sometimes, I let other people’s unhealthy behavior toward me define my own sense of worth. At times, I take on a love one’s hurt not only as if it were my own but as if it were my responsibility to fix.  Sometimes these misfires of affect, behavior, cognition, and their dynamic interplay are brief. Other times, they play out over the years, like increasingly gnarled tree roots underground. I can feel them. I know they are there but I can’t see them.

I know I am not alone in this. No one is perfect. But I’m tired of feeling happy and balanced so much of the time only to find myself acting grouchy, ridiculous, and sometimes outright mean, when I pass my stress tolerance. I used to live my life very near or at capacity so I stressed very easily. It’s not so easy now so I figure this is a particularly good time to work on this.

There is a concept of “radical acceptance” in mindfulness meditation. In my understanding, it means observing our own painful thoughts and feelings and allowing them to be, instead of resisting them.

This is why my blog sometimes reads like a confessional. I am, however, not seeking reassurance or absolution. I am trying to better understand myself and be a more balanced person.

I am also trying to show that it is possible to be a happy person without being a perfect person. Over the past year, I have begun to view a lot of coping statements people use as being counterproductive for me. I don’t like telling myself “beauty is only skin deep” or “fat is beautiful” when I am not feeling good about my body. Similarly, in terms of aging, I don’t want to tell myself, “I’m only as old as I feel” or “age is only a number.” I would like to keep working to a point where I say things to myself like, “I am overweight. That may not be the greatest for my health. What do I want to do?” Or, “I am getting older. I’ve had a serious illness. I’m living a pretty healthy life now, doing the best that I can. I think I will get on with my day.”

I am working to get to a point where self-examination is objective and leads to serenity or agency. I am getting there but I still have much further to go. I am trying to take apart the mechanism, bit by bit, that turns self-examination into doubts of worth.

I used to think that having a balanced life meant almost never feeling stress and shuffling through the states of joy, bliss, serenity, faith, hope, and resolve. I actually had a friend years ago who practiced mindfulness, who seemed this way. Then there was the day I tried to say something empathetic about her stress level because we were all working hard. She quickly and somewhat sharply told me that she “never” got stressed. Then I knew. She was one of the rest of us.

People are complicated. Life is complicated. We spend our whole lives at A, B, C, & D. And thank goodness. I want to live a long life and how boring would it be to have it all figured out.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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