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We all must be open to accepting acceptance. Tenacity is lauded in endurance sports, often with dire consequences. People view the Ironman motto as “Finish at all costs” rather than their current salvo of “Anything is possible” (which is equally mythical), since anything but obtaining a coveted medal after crossing the tape is generally deemed intolerable. The truth of the matter, though, is that despite putting forth best efforts, and pushing and pushing and pushing, the proverbial finish line must wait for another day. It is accepting that sometimes folding your cards is a better option than going all in.
What is acceptance?
The notion of acceptance is oft forgotten amidst the quest for success, and this is unfortunate since acceptance can be liberating and not antithetical to goal seeking behavior.
The concept of acceptance means being nonjudgmental to oneself by being open and receptive toward internal and external experiences.1 Furthermore, we need to remove the negative connotations of unpleasant feelings and not appraise them as good or bad, but know that they are “a facet of human life”.2 Cognitive therapy that uses acceptance-based techniques, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, does just this by teaching how to increase an “individuals’ willingness to experience aversive feelings, thoughts, and sensations, without trying to change or eliminate them”.3
The cornerstone of acceptance and commitment therapy is psychological flexibility, which “is the capacity to continue with or change behavior, guided by one’s goals”4 by being open, aware, centered, and engaged – an integrative process which can influence behavior.5
Acceptance can be applied to all facets of life: whether it is dealing with physical and cognitive declines of aging, being passed by yet again for a promotion, coming to terms with an illness, kicking an abusive habit, managing a sick child or parent, understanding that physical limitations are real and might not allow one to achieve an ultimate goal.
In my own life, I refused to accept anything less than whatever it was I sought, until that mindset no longer worked. As it often happens, it takes some kind of life-altering experience to make major mindset changes; and even then, acceptance rarely unfolds neatly, rather it comes kicking and screaming like a child having a temper-tantrum.
My journey toward acceptance
Many years have passed since the bike accident that forced me into the realm of acceptance. Acceptance that I can no longer ride a bike, or swim. Acceptance that I cannot work as many hours because pain forces me to lie down. Acceptance that every action has a consequence. Acceptance that no matter what therapies or procedures I embrace they still will not make me whole again and I will always have to deal with some degree of chronic pain.
It has taken me many years to comprehend that my life has changed in unimaginable ways. In order to accomplish this acceptance, I have streamlined my work situation, I eased up on myself when I cannot complete a seemingly simplistic task, and I view what I cannot control with less apprehension. I altered my training and now understand the value of run/walk or even a walk. Taking charge of what I can control and educating myself on ways to make my life easier have helped me achieve acceptance.
Elite athletes and acceptance
Abby D’Agostino captured the attention of the world at the Rio Olympics when she and another competitor tripped and fell to the track during the 5k preliminary rounds. Her fall was severe enough to cause extensive knee damage requiring surgery and prolonged rehab. Abby’s training looks radically different now because combining this injury with previous stress reactions she can no longer sustain high mileage. Her coach said, “It is time for her to come to terms with her limitations, which include low bone density. Going forward, many running sessions will be replaced by cross training. She’ll run on softer surfaces, use the Alter-G, and do whatever is necessary to save her body for critical speed workouts and harder runs outside.”6
As Abby reached acceptance, her outlook changed profoundly, “I want to go about this healing process with a sense of freedom that will benefit my relationship with running and my passion for it.”7
Tiger Woods, winner of 14 majors, has undergone multiple surgeries. His acceptance of his situation was apparent when he said “I feel good, not great…Granted, I don’t ever think I’ll feel great, because it’s three back surgeries, four knee operations. I’m always going to be a little bit sore, that’s just the way it is. As long as I can function at a good enough level, I’m fine with that.”8
Professional runner Brandon Hudgins suffers from vasculitis, an inflammatory disease of small blood vessels. A recent flare-up led Brandon to rethink his outlook toward running. On his blog, he wrote, “My spirit is not broken though. I’m as motivated as ever to follow the doctor’s orders, get back into remission and get back on the circuit. I don’t know how long that will be, it could be a few months, or it could be a whole year. Never the less, I’m more prepared than ever to fight this and win.”9 Brandon has accepted his situation and rather than wallow in self-pity, he will fight the fight needed to get back to optimal health and fitness.
It is easy to become caught up in a quagmire of self-doubt and depression, to grouse and bemoan a less than ideal status quo. If acceptance theory and ACT teach us anything, though, it is that humans are infinitely adaptable. By using techniques of mindfulness, nonjudgmental awareness,10 positive self-talk, and rewriting the script that you imagine for yourself, you can achieve acceptance when and where it is needed.
1Lindsay, E. K., & Creswell, J. D. (2017). Mechanisms of mindfulness training: Monitor and Acceptance Theory (MAT). Clinical Psychology Review, 51, 48-59.
2Ivanova, E., Jensen, D., Cassoff, J., Gu, F., & Knäuper, B. (2015). Acceptance and commitment therapy improves exercise tolerance in sedentary women. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 47(6), 1251-8.
4McCracken, L. M., & Vowles, K. E. (2014). Acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness for chronic pain: Model, process, and progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178.
10See 4 above