Acceptance and action…people very often see these as two completely different choices. We can either accept something the way it is, or we can take action to change it.
However, the most effective way to approach life is to embrace both in combination. And in fact almost all of our “problems” can be attributed to a misunderstanding of how acceptance and action work together.
Effective people know that the first step in any situation is to accept it fully. This is true of our physical appearance, our emotional state, someone else’s behavior, a temporary predicament, or a major situation. In other words, all of our life’s experiences. Acceptance must be the first step. If we skip this step, or take the opposite stance (“This is unacceptable!”) then we invite strong negative emotions to dominate our actions and mindset. Refusing to accept a situation is what causes panic in an emergency, an outburst in a frustrating situation, depression, anxiety, stress, worry, anger, and just about every other negative emotion. So, the first step has to be a full acceptance of reality.
Acceptance is not surrender. In fact, it’s the opposite. Acceptance is the critical first step to positive action. It keeps our thinking clear and unobstructed by negative emotion. It allows us to then make smart and effective choices about:
- Whether or not action is necessary or helpful
- What choices or options we have, and what is beyond our control
- What kinds of actions we need to take immediately
- What kinds of actions we might take later to avoid a recurrence of the issue
- What lessons we can learn
- What opportunities have emerged
- How we can remain happy regardless of the situation
These are very effective lines of thought, resulting in smart decisions and great results. And they’re made nearly impossible if we jump past acceptance (declaring something as ‘unacceptable’) and immediately begin trying to fight it or fix it.
‘Fighting’ isn’t really action, it’s done internally, emotionally. It’s an internal conflict that results in anger, lashing out, avoidance, complaining, self-medication, and a wealth of other poor behaviors and results. Fighting is the worst choice because we’re not only refusing to accept the situation, we’re also not taking any action to change it! It can burn us up inside.
Internal conflict is the cause of the early demise of many people, because it is the source of our bad habits. It’s more commonly called ‘Stress’, and since ‘stress is normal’, and the associated stress-relief behaviors are encouraged in society, it goes unchecked. It’s an infinite loop: encounter a life situation we don’t like, find it unacceptable, complain about it, stress about it, and eventually have a drink (or go for a walk, or watch tv) to dull the internal tension. Repeat.
Never resolved. The result is actually self-harm. Some call that a mental disorder, and by ‘some’ I just mean experts on the human brain and human behavior.
‘Fixing’ is better than fighting, but can have unseen consequences. Fixing includes behaviors like snapping a comment back at someone, grabbing a child’s arm to correct behavior, quitting/leaving in a huff, yelling, panicking, forcing or hitting something to get it to work, and so on. Often these are snap actions, but can sometimes be drawn out – for example, crafting and sending a series of angry emails, or sending a scathing review of a business’ services. Whether a snap reaction or a series of long-term behaviors, what they have in common is that they’re emotion-driven. The clarity and perspective of acceptance is not present, and neither are you.
Because they are not well considered, these are often actions that have long-term negative consequences. A ruined relationship, bad feelings with an employer or organization, something physically broken (including yourself), or some other unintended result that then has to be dealt with, and may be more serious and harder to repair.
Effective action starts with a choice. We can choose to:
a.) embrace the situation as is, or
b.) take clear, positive action to affect a different result
So effective ‘action’ can often be simply choosing to embrace the situation. We can choose to let go, smile, allow it, be present, be grateful, and not focus on the negative. That’s an action, and a very powerful one.
It could be to get creative and make a bad situation fun or productive – listening to an audio book in traffic, or practicing meditation in a dentist’s chair. There is almost always an option to be more present, less immobilized or overwhelmed with negative emotion, and to gain more perspective in any situation. Monks do it, and so do Navy SEALs, both to great effect, in very different circumstances.
Once we’ve accepted the situation, we are also free to decide that we want to change it. And this isn’t necessarily a slow, contemplative process that requires sitting and thinking before taking action. The action can appear instantaneous, but it is not the same as ‘fixing’. Fixing is behavior driven solely out of a negative: (“I don’t like being in this situation!”). Effective action, on the other hand, is driven from a positive: (“I’m in this situation, now what can I do?”). It’s positive, it’s clear, it’s ‘goal-driven’, and it’s thoughtful. That’s why it produces better results – it uses more advanced parts of our brain. ‘Fixing’ is simply abiding a primitive response by the brain.
For example, if you find yourself having fallen into icy water, obviously there’s no time to get out a notebook and think it through. Immediate action is required. However, action resulting from not accepting the situation will likely produce ‘fixing’ behavior – panic, flailing, quick exhaustion. On the other hand, taking a fraction of a second and accepting the situation “I’m in this icy water, now what can I do?”, can result in much more effective actions (and survival rates). Most people who drown in cars, for example, are found to have simply forgotten to remove their seatbelt.
Of course, those are extreme situations, but presented for a reason – they show that even in critical situations (perhaps especially in critical situations), acceptance is the most important first step to determining effective action and moving to a desired state.
Acceptance, first and fully. That alone helps you answer the critical next question “what can I do?”. With acceptance first, the answer to that question will be much more clear, and any action taken will be vastly more effective, because it will be powered by reality and clear thinking, instead of by automatic negative emotions.