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Suffering and Acceptance in our Life Journeys

“Emotional suffering often is created because we cling to things as we wish they would be, or think they should be, instead of accepting things as they are”

(Compassion and Psychotherapy- Germer and Siegel)

How has this line rung true for you over these past few weeks? 

During the pandemic, every conversation I had with clients and friends seemed to involve some aspect of discussing “when things were normal.” COVID-19 has shaken our concept of almost everything we know about being “normal” in this society. On top of this, The the social and racial adversity awareness movements in the pandemic caused many of us to question if “normal” was even good enough. 

During the pandemic (when the earlier version of this blog was originally written) I was reading through one of my favourite new therapist books, Compassion and Wisdom in Psychotherapy by Germer and Siegel and came across the line posted above. It speaks so well to the suffering I encountered in almost every one of my clients.  “I wish I could be confident,” “I wish things were easier,” “My mom should understand how I feel and know what to say,” “My child shouldn’t have mental health problems.” This yearning for things that are not possible, or probable is addictive. We as humans seem to be so invested in our untrue views of the world, the future and the past. 

Germer and Siegel write, “Our attachment to our wishful thinking, longings, our ideas of fairness and of what others should do, think and feel can trap us in cycles of pointless longing and despair.” Once again, it is easy for me to see this play out in my client’s lives. I see this in the ways that clients find themselves stuck in unhealthy relationships, addictions, and unhelpful patterns that wear on their bodies, souls, and minds. I see this most clearly in attachment work with adult clients. Wishing our parents would show up in a different way, have a different capacity than they have etc.

It is hard for us to let go of our own deep desires and wishes, and this keeps us stuck in our suffering.

As I notice these patterns surface in my clients, I also recognize them in myself, in my friends, in my family and in our society as a whole. We all move away from discomfort sometimes at the cost of others, and almost always by denying what we really need. 

I have often heard the story of Sisyphus referenced to when discussing this type of suffering. The man cursed to roll a giant boulder up a hill day in and day out, only to have it roll back down as he reaches the top. Buddhism deeply explores the concept of suffering or “Duhkha” as a feeling of non-satisfaction, unease,  or sorrow. This issue has been discussed for lifetimes! We are

constantly striving to end struggling, and then in turn, creating more struggle. How do we end this? Many scholars, religious figures, and wise people, will say to accept that life is full of suffering. In DBT (which is very informed by Buddhist teachings!) we call this Radical Acceptance. Marsha Linehan explains how she learned Radical Acceptance in a Buddhist monastery as “the practice of letting go of having to have what you wanted in the moment, and the recognition that you didn’t always have to have what you want.” She shared that she teaches clients “Suppressing what you want is not the way to go. Now I want to be clear... acceptance is not inaction. This does not mean that we need to accept EVERYTHING, we can't "accept" abusive treatment, injustice in the world etc.

What I am talking about here is learning to "radically accept that sometimes you want something you don’t have and it’s not a catastrophe.” Linehan talks about how radical acceptance is transformative if we use it to accept two things: 1) The moment that you are in, 2) The past. It is accepting reality for what it is. This is the only birthplace of true change and growth. It is the end of pushing the boulder up the hill, because we have finally accepted that it’s going to continuously fall back down. 

In one of my favourite lines in the film The Princess Bride a character states, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” How often are we being “sold” the

idea that life can be easy and painless? These beautiful little nuggets of truth are littered throughout films and tv. In the show Nashville, one of the characters helps a friend grappling with a tough situation by stating, “We all get sold this fantasy that life is going to be easy. it hurts like hell when you learn the truth. It’s just you can’t push that kind of pain away. You gotta own it, deal with it everyday.” 

It is so hard for us to accept that we can’t control, or that we can’t fix, or stop pain. Until we let go of this longing, we are stuck.

I work with many clients who feel this pain deeply in their journey to becoming a parent, I also experienced this pain myself in our first fertility journey.  The process showed me how addicted I was to this illusion of control I thought I had. It can feel like a true punch in the gut that there is only so much we can could do to attain something that we want so badly with our whole hearts. In my own journey, on a really rough day my partner sat me down and he kindly pointed out to me how I often have difficulty with patience and control when I am excited about something (which is entirely true). I realized in that moment that no amount of my wishing and worrying was going to make a baby come any faster than it was supposed to. I took a moment to STOP looking at the way I wanted things to be, and worked on accepting things as they were. I recognized how much suffering and stress I was putting myself through by wanting to be in control of something I cannot change. 

The pandemic is another awfully fantastic example of how we were all collectively being challenged by forces beyond our control with COVID-19. We didn’t know if there is will be additional waves of lockdown, we didn’t know if schools would stay open, we didn’t know if would will get sick, who will get sick, and how it will impact us or them. It’s an awful feeling, but also, maybe, a beautiful lesson and awakening to how little control we have. Every day for most of us in the years of the pandemic had been a small practice in accepting things as they are, even though it was hard. Who knew COVID could teach us such a valuable lesson about life? 

I hope you have all have at least one moment of peace in the past few weeks to stop, breathe and to accept. We owe it to ourselves to turn the compassion that we give daily to each-other inward. Reinhold Niebuhr’s words ring truer than ever as we reflect on acceptance in these trying times:

"May we all be granted the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot change, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other"


What are some things that you are “clinging to” because you wish they would be another way? (Some examples I hear about often might be… A parent not responding/supporting in the way we need them to be, a fertility journey not being this difficult, a Postpartum journey “not being the way it should be.”) 

What would it look like for you to accept these unchangeable things? 

How might moving out of this wishful longing place empower you to make changes in areas where change and influence is possible? 

(For example: In accepting my fertility journey, I can be angry about it but I can also recognize my responsibility to care compassionately for my body and heart and be gentle with myself as I navigate this difficult time.)



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