Accept it, then change it

There is a story of a Zen master who told his students this: “You are all perfect just as you are. And …you could use a little work.”

It’s an interesting paradox that I have noticed in my therapy practice: The thing people hate is the thing they cannot change. Once people accept whatever “the thing” is, then it is amenable to change.

If you have anxiety, you can’t change it while refusing to have it. You can’t lose the extra weight you’re carrying while actively hating your body. You can’t refuse to have a thing and expect to be able to do something with it. If I asked you to fix my broken coffee cup, can you fix it without first opening your hands to receive it?

People often misunderstand what we mean by accepting something. It doesn’t mean resigning yourself to it, but simply seeing clearly that which is already here.  It is an active type of surrender. It’s a recognition. If you have panic attacks, it means actively noticing the anxiety in your body, and the judging or fearful thoughts about it, and the witnessing presence that is you. It means seeing that you’re having a thought about anxiety, but you are not anxiety. Anxiety is not you, but it is a thing that shows up in you sometimes.

You are bigger than anxiety, or obesity, or PTSD, or whatever you struggle with. Moving away from something you don’t want is much less effective than moving toward something you do want. How do you move toward health rather than away from your problems?

There is a great metaphor that we use in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Suppose you’re driving a bus (your life), and a few unwanted passengers (your problems) get on. You want to get to your destination (health, happiness). So does it make sense to stop the bus until the passengers get off? Of course not. You keep going, knowing that the passengers are coming, too, at least for now. You move toward what you want rather than struggling to control what you don’t want, no matter how loud and annoying those passengers get.

You have urges to eat chocolate even though you want to lose weight? OK. See the urge, know that it’s there whether you eat the chocolate or not and know that it will pass whether you eat the chocolate or not. Don’t hate yourself for wanting the chocolate, or for choosing to eat it sometimes.

You have anxiety every time you’re in a new social situation? OK. See the anxiety, see the thoughts that show up with it. Know that you can choose to introduce yourself to someone at that networking lunch even if anxiety tells you that you can’t. You don’t have to get rid of it first. You can have the life you want right now.

So, your problems are coming along for the ride.

Now — where you will go?





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