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  • Tom Goldstein

Acceptance vs change in challenging situations

In a challenging situation, is it best to change or accept?

Imagine that you’ve been asked to do something that really scares you. Each of us has something that brings out the fear in us, and most of us would be happy if the anxiety it raises had less of an impact on our lives. This article looks at three fundamentally different approaches to handling challenging life situations. I present a new, and unorthodox way to handle difficult feelings that arise in demanding situations. This should enable you to live your life more fully and take advantage of difficult opportunities without suffering and struggling through.

Difficult situations bring difficult emotions

Before we get going, the first step is to decide whether it’s even worth engaging in the tough situation. This is a powerful question to ask yourself, and one that requires a very honest sense of what you really want in your life. Choosing not doing something, to avoid a difficult experience, may mean you miss out on important opportunities for your life. There are some situations that you simply can’t avoid. For the rest, however, it is important to accept that you can’t do everything. You can choose to drop the things that are wasting your time and energy, and to make the most of the things that mean the most to you personally.

Don't blindly go into every opportunity, consider whether they align with your values

Once you’ve decided that you really do want to do this thing that scares you; if it’s something that will advance the career you love, open up a relationship, bring opportunities that really matter to you, or bring you a sense of achievement that aligns well with your values; then you need to decide how you’re going to handle your fear and anxiety.

1) The most basic approach is to white knuckle the experience, to push through and cling on, suffering the fear but ultimately surviving. Some people can do this well, but I don’t personally recommend it. Sure, you may learn that you can survive anything, and you get tough, but you’re not learning any skills in the process. Often you will be just as scared, the next time a similar opportunity comes up for you.

2) The next option is to actively try to change how you respond to the situation. This might include positive affirmations, NLP or hypnosis. It’s true, many of these approaches have a positive impact, but they are tricks of the mind, which don’t fundamentally shift your relationship to your fear or to the task. You’re likely to keep coming up against the same difficult or debilitating stress response and having to use your tricks as crutches. You’re unlikely to create a lasting difference for yourself, and unlikely to become at ease with the situation which may arise many times in your life.

These first two options involve a lot of energy, a lot of effort, and often don’t really reduce our suffering. In fact, you could say that they involve a serious amount of struggle and wading through treacle. Some people will turn to distractions to get them through, which could be drink, drugs, sport or anything else. While this means we avoid the difficult feelings in the short term, they will always turn up again soon.

Often we deal with difficult situations and emotions by fighting and struggling

3) There is a radical alternative, which involves acceptance rather than change. There is a large body of research now available that points to this rather counter intuitive approach. Acceptance of fear and anxiety has been proven to work surprisingly effectively and is slowly becoming part of mainstream coaching and therapy. The technique involves noticing you’re the felt experience, and deeply accepting it for what it is. The key is to focus on the physical experience of the fear and anxiety, rather than getting lost in the thoughts you have about it. Maybe you feel a tightness somewhere between your belly and your chest. When your fear arises, notice those sensations and let yourself become immersed even more deeply in those feelings. Importantly, this does not mean immersing yourself in your thoughts, be sure to let your thoughts go and immerse yourself in the physical feelings (or sensations) in your body. Just allow yourself to ‘be’ with the experience you’re having. No need to try and change it, or analyse it, just let those uncomfortable feelings be there.

Immerse yourself deeply in your experience, without anlaysing the situation

The counter intuitive part is that rather than trying to make the feelings go away, you allow them to be there. Rather than experiencing these feelings as uncomfortable or painful, you slowly adapt your relationship to them to be one of acceptance. Once you’ve changed your relationship to your difficult feelings, whether they are fear, anxiety, sadness, whatever, you will no longer be dominated by them. Paradoxically, deep acceptance often leads to deep change, even though it’s not the goal of the approach.

Research over the past 30 years has increasingly shown that this approach to accepting our feelings is more effective over the long term, builds our capacity to perform successfully and avoids the negative effects of the other approaches.

Learning to accept the difficult feelings that arise for you gives you great strength

Of course, just because you learn to accept your feelings for what they are, doesn’t mean that you resign yourself to living small. This is your chance to feel the fear, stress, anxiety and make a stand for what’s important to you. The question for you is, are you ready to try something radically different? Are you ready to make a stand to live a more fulfilling life? For me, this approach has allowed me to claim opportunities that are have been scary, without needing to struggle through them.

Many people try all the other approaches, struggling over many years, before they realise that acceptance is a more effective strategy. Sure, it runs against society norms of wanting to get rid of anything that bothers us, through distraction or whatever. By accepting those things as a natural part of us, they move out of the way and they stop hijacking our agenda in a much more natural way.


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