When unpleasant circumstances present themselves and cannot be changed, the Serenity Prayer invites us to accept them, with serenity. But how do we do this? What does it mean to “accept?” Where do we start?

An abstract concept like acceptance can be better understood if we give it shape and definition by breaking it down into smaller parts. We can start by viewing acceptance as a journey, a progression of evolving perspectives and attitudes toward a situation. Considering the following four phases may be helpful: resistance, resignation, acceptance and embracing.

Phase 1: Resistance

Because the situation is unpleasant, our initial inclination often is to resist. We arrive at the airport eager to travel to the ideal vacation spot or important business meeting only to learn that the flight has been cancelled. Immediately, we may respond with denial and a refusal to believe that the circumstance is real. “I can’t believe this.” “This cannot be happening right now.” We might fight, argue, negotiate, beg and plead, all in an effort to change an event that cannot be changed. The flight has already been cancelled. The person in the resistance phase often looks like one who is protesting.

Phase 2: Resignation

In the resignation phase, we acknowledge that the circumstance is real and unavoidable, but we aren’t happy about it. We’re no longer pushing back against it. We’ve surrendered to the truth that this is the way it is, at least for now. “I am actually stuck at the airport, there’s nothing I can do to change it and I don’t like it one bit.” The person in the resignation phase may look limp and defeated.

Phase 3: Acceptance

This third phase includes the same recognition of the reality of the situation as in the resignation phase, but without the despair and discomfort. It is the recognition accompanied by serenity and perspective. “Here I am with my plans seriously disrupted . . . but I guess it’s okay.” “Things will work out.” “It’s not the end of the world.” The person in the acceptance phase is likely to look calm and relaxed.

Phase 4: Embracing

The last phase of embracing may be the most challenging of all. We’ve stopped fighting, we’ve accepted the facts and even learned to relax with it all. Now, sometimes, there is an opportunity to go even further and experience a silver lining that would not have been available if the mishap never occurred. Maybe it’s settling into that airport seat and making that long overdue phone call to an ailing family member. Or practicing meditation techniques you’ve been thinking about. Or contemplating the innocence on the face of the infant across from you asleep in her mother’s arms.

When struggling to come to terms with a stressful or unfortunate part of life, it can be useful to think about these four stages of the acceptance process. We can think about where in the process we are right now, and then how much further we would like to go. Stretching ourselves to get to the next level is an option which we might not always want to choose. Certainly, when great tragedies occur like the loss of loved ones or horrible injustices, it might seem next to impossible to find any silver lining to embrace. But if we do aspire to attain a higher level of acceptance, it can help to know what the next step might look like and feel like so that we have a vision to aim for. Then with a willingness to let go of the last phase and an openness to move into the next, we might find greater peace and happiness despite the misfortunes that may come our way.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Pellinni/ morguefile.com


Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.