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How 12-Step Recovery Taught Me to Let Go and Become Accepting

Photo Credit: Jenny Ueberberg

One of the most important things that 12-step recovery taught me was acceptance: how to accept things I previously considered unacceptable.

I didn’t really understand just how important the lack of acceptance was in my life. I was filled with resentments and wanted many things to be different than they were: traffic, my boss, politics, the educational system, the cap of my toothpaste tube.

I’d heard a bunch of things about acceptance before:

     “Emotional pain often comes from non-acceptance.”

     “Acceptance decreases suffering.”

     “Acceptance is a choice; it means we stop fighting against what IS.”

But my question was – how do you do it?! HOW do I learn to accept things that I see as unacceptable!?

Here’s my story to illustrate how I got to the point where I’m (mostly) accepting of things that used to feel unacceptable. It started with my first epiphany in recovery which happened while I was in a traffic jam. I’d just pumped the brakes for the third time while crawling along and this thought popped into my head, “I need to leave more space between cars…”

I was like, “Wait! Whoa! *I* need to leave more space between cars! It’s not that there’s traffic that’s the problem here, it’s me! I’m the problem!” This may not sound like good news to you, but it was good news to me because, if I’m the problem, then I can be the solution!

I wasn’t sure how I could be the solution just yet, but what came to mind was a common saying from recovery, “Acceptance is the answer to my problem today.”

I didn’t really know what that saying meant, but I’d been in recovery long enough to listen to the wisdom of recovery because I’d already learned so, so much that I never got in all the therapy and self-help stuff I did. What I did was repeat that phrase over and over again, “Acceptance is the answer to my problem today….” What happened was miraculous! I became calm.

The situation hadn’t changed, but my reaction to it was completely different. I very quickly had a cascade of understanding about how my thinking that there should not be traffic was the problem. Highways were built for traffic, yet I somehow thought there shouldn’t be traffic there (at least not while I was driving!).

This helped me see that it was my thinking the source of most of my problems. It’s thinking that things shouldn’t be the way they are that’s the problem. Recognizing that I wasn’t accepting things as they were was the biggest step in learning acceptance. You can’t fix something if you don’t see it as a problem.

Being in a situation that had been extremely frustrating just moments before and becoming calm in that very same situation changed everything. It was news to me that I could be in the same situation and not be activated!

I previously thought it was the situation that was the problem, but it turned out it was ME that was the problem. Or rather, it was my thinking about the situation that was the problem. I saw that I’d been trying to fight against reality, against what is. So I started telling myself, “This is what’s happening, this is what’s happening, this is what’s happening…” as a way to sort of “insert” myself into the facts of a situation (e.g., there’s traffic on the highway during rush hour). 

What’s interesting is that I was the kind of person who didn’t believe I had any “shoulds” in my thinking. When I heard things like, “Don’t should on yourself” I didn’t think it applied to me. Yet here I was thinking that traffic, politics, the educational system, etc., should be different than they were.

There’s a piece of 12-step literature about how saying something over and over can clear up a channel choked up with fear, anger, frustration, or misunderstanding. I think that’s why repeating “Acceptance is the answer to my problem” and “This is what’s happening” really worked for me in getting me to acceptance.

Acceptance means focusing our thinking on what is happening, being in the present moment, and facing “this is what’s happening.” As they say, “You cannot solve a problem by condemning it,” and I’d been condemning these “problems” thinking they were at fault when the problem was my thinking.

Acceptance doesn’t mean I have to like it. 

I don’t have to like that there’s traffic, and I don’t have to like the way the manufacturers of the toothpaste cap created it. But I also don’t have to fight against what is. I get to stop resisting and stop avoiding and be really present.

I can focus on the world around me or fix myself and deal with “Life on Life’s Terms.” If I resist the situation, I can’t do anything about it. But if I accept it, I can be at peace and present.

There have been many areas (besides traffic!) where acceptance has made a huge difference. One is emotional acceptance. I’ve come to accept that “this is how I’m feeling.” Emotions tend to build on each other, so accepting them rather than resisting them lessens the impact of the difficult emotions. For example, if you feel worried, but then you get angry that you’re worried your difficulty gets multiplied (worry x anger = something much shittier than either of those). But if you feel worried and accept that you’re worried, then you only have the original feeling without adding additional emotion to it. Just feel the worry and let it pass. Emotions are energy, and they will morph and change – this too shall pass

The most important kind of acceptance for me has been self-acceptance. You can’t change something by condemning it. I’m never going to beat myself up into being a sane, rational, functional, mature person. So when I do something I don’t particularly like, I accept that I did that thing instead of fighting it. I try to come to the situation with curiosity instead of condemnation. This allows me to face reality and work toward the kind of life I want – one of peace and serenity.

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