Shit happens. All the time. To everybody.
No, you don’t deserve it. No, it “shouldn’t be that way.” When I hear from guys who are up-to-here frustrated with things that are happening to them and around them, or what they hear around them, I suggest something that goes against the grain. I suggest that they accept it. What I say is: Commit to acceptance. Go all in and totally acknowledge things as they are. It’s not just acceptance. It’s radical acceptance. And it works.
If they come to me complaining that they’re standing knee deep in moose dung, everything changes when—instead of railing about how they got there or how impossible it is to get out—they learn to simply say, “I’m standing knee deep in moose dung.”
When I first mention radical acceptance, men think I’m telling them to ignore their problems or that it’s okay to keep things the way they are. They think I’m telling them to give up. But radical acceptance isn’t about giving up control. It’s what helps you gain control, and it’s the key to escaping the misery of fighting the same losing battles over and over again.
What acceptance looks like
I had a patient, whom I’ll call Rob, who had never seen eye to eye with a son who was struggling with addiction. Acceptance meant that Rob had to admit he could not change his son, and that was hard, because he felt that his duty as a parent was to protect him. But when he stopped pushing his son to change, he discovered that they were arguing less and actually talking more. Far from being about admitting defeat, acceptance was an active way for Rob to help his son feel comfortable enough to open up about his struggles. After a year, their relationship improved. His son also showed an interest in going to rehab.
Radical acceptance is difficult, because our tendency is to fight. Who would think that acknowledging that you’re in deep—moose dung, marital discord, family strife—would help you get out of it? It’s extreme, but it’s effective. Making peace with reality keeps your emotions from taking over and allows you to think rationally.
Focusing on your end goal can help you do this—especially if you want to change a situation that’s making you frustrated, tired, or angry. For instance, the first time I met with a patient in his early 20s I’ll call Trey, he was having a tough time getting over a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. “The relationship wasn’t great, but we have the same friends, and even though it’s been over a year, I’m afraid I’ll run into her,” he told me. Trey had to accept that completely avoiding his ex was unrealistic and that feeling discomfort was part of reaching his goal of moving on. Rather than fighting the discomfort, which was stressful and exhausting, he learned to accept it. Only then could he turn to developing strategies for making the inevitable interactions with his ex more tolerable.
What’s radical about it?
You have to be all in on the decision you’ve made to accept the situation. Tepid acceptance is unstable and probably won’t hold up when you endure challenges. For instance, Rob could have said, “I’ll accept that I can’t change him, but if he relapses one more time, I’m cutting him off.” That would show some acceptance, but he wouldn’t be all in. It’s not easy to fully commit to the acceptance, but it can really get you somewhere.
I learned about radical acceptance the hard way. I used to play pickup basketball at my gym after work. On one side of the court, guys were bigger, stronger, taller, and half my age. On the other, guys were a little older but still fiercely competitive. For years, I nursed my ego by playing with the bigger guys, but I kept getting hurt. Eventually a severe ankle sprain and an eye injury taught me a tough lesson. I didn’t have to give up basketball, but I had to accept that if I wanted to compete without getting hurt, I’d need to train more. Until I did that, I could always enjoy a good game on the other side. It was an adjustment, but I began winning more games and I wasn’t limping into work the next day. And playing was a lot more fun. I didn’t give up on the game, but by accepting that I wasn’t on the side of the court I needed to be on, I found a way to get there.
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Men's Health.
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