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There have been so many times I have seen a man wanting to weep but instead beat his heart until it was unconscious.
— Nayyirah Waheed

We all know what it feels like to clench against reality — to deny what we are actually experiencing. It feels like being stuck and being pulled apart at the same time. This state of internal tension can be incredibly uncomfortable.

When we want to accept something, but we can’t, we can end up in this tense and rather brutal state.

Maybe, when we find ourselves in that place, we can try to navigate through it by looking for what we can accept and by accepting what we can’t currently accept.

Radical Acceptance of our Failure to Radically Accept

The stoics encourage us to focus on what we can control, and accept what we can’t control.

Tara Brach encourages this as well, through her concept of Radical Acceptance.

She implores us to:

  • Respond to our present-moment (and past) experiences with mindfulness and compassion.
  • Accept the base reality of what we are experiencing (or have experienced), rather than deny its existence.
  • Be kind to ourselves as we work through the process of accepting our experience.

But sometimes, despite our best efforts to practice radical acceptance, we hit a wall. Sometimes we can’t let go of some aspect of our guilt or our shame. Maybe we haven’t forgiven ourselves enough to be able to accept parts of our past experience. Maybe we don’t feel we’ve done the necessary work in order for it to be okay to accept some part of our experience. At times it can almost feel inappropriate to accept our experience — especially when there is trauma involved.

When we are trying to bring acceptance to our experience and we find ourselves struggling to accept, we can end up beating ourselves up even more out of our frustration that we can’t accept our experience. It can cause some serious cognitive dissonance.

But even amidst our frustration, we have to start where we can. We need to find the level at which we can be at peace with some layer of our experience.

In these moments, we need to accept that we’re having trouble accepting.

Acceptance is Non-Binary

It could help if we shift away from thinking of acceptance as a binary thing, to instead thinking of it as a gradient.

Some amount of acceptance is probably better than none. And whatever amount of our experience we can accept (and whatever layer of our experience we can acceptance) might be able to help us on our journey towards greater acceptance.

We start by finding the level at which we can actually accept our experience. Once we find that level of acceptance, we can proceed.

We might question the effectiveness of accepting that we can’t accept something — maybe it won’t do us any good. Maybe it’s too discursive. Maybe. But what is the alternative?

It might not feel very satisfying to do this — especially if our expectation of ourselves is that we ought to be able to just radically accept all that comes our way with ease. But this is the way we can move towards more acceptance.

Acceptance is not an endurance test

In her book, True Refuge, Tara Brach provides some comforting words around this issue:

“Being present with difficulty is not an endurance test. It is not yet another domain where you need to prove that you can succeed. Sometimes you simply need to prepare the ground and find ways to feel more safe and stable. Sometimes in the face of great pain, you might stay present for just thirty seconds, a minute, five minutes. All that matters is how you are relating to pain. Refuge is always waiting for you; it is here in the moments that you regard what is happening with a kind and gentle presence.”

We can be a bit easier on ourselves if we’re having trouble accepting all the change in our lives right now. Accepting that we’re having trouble accepting is where we can start.