Does serenity really come from accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can? Dr Sarah Whitaker, a specialist in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) explores this important question in more detail;
Sidestepping the religious association with this question, the quick answer, is yes… it often does. This is because there is a lot of wasted energy that goes into fighting a situation that you can’t change and missed opportunities when not being courageous and changing what you can to make life better. This is the case in “normal” life when we’re all independently facing our own battles, usually made even more complicated with juggling work and family life. However, the rapidly changing world of the last few months has taken us to new levels of facing up to what we can and, more importantly, can’t change.
Moving towards acceptance
On the whole, our mind is a fantastic problem-solving machine, which tries to work out ways to get us closer to our goals. This works well when there’s a solution, however often we over-rely on our thoughts and feelings to give us a sense of control. We try to change our thoughts so that we feel happier, more positive, more confident or less stressed. However, this is a fallacy. We have very little control over our thoughts, and what little control we do have (e.g. with distraction) takes significant energy and is short acting. To demonstrate this, see if you can control your mind’s response to the ends of these phrases…
Mary had a little….
The wheels on the bus go…
Club Tropicana drinks are…
So, if putting effort into thinking or feeling better is futile and does not lead to acceptance, how do we get more peace and contentment in our life, even in the face of a pandemic?
Firstly, focusing on what you can do in this moment is a really good starting point. In the wisdom of Master Oogway (from Kung Fu Panda) “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery but today is a gift… that is why it is called the present.” What can you actually do today that makes your life better?
Secondly, challenge yourself to consider what really matters to you. There’s an important difference between the goals we set ourselves for what we want to achieve, and the deeper meaning as to why those things matter to us. Having a clear understanding about that meaning, or value, underpinning the goal means that we have a more flexible roadmap which can navigate us around barriers when our goals get thwarted.
To sum up; life tends to feel most fulfilling when we put our energies into taking action where we have capacity to make a change, that is guided by a deep connection to what really matters to us. Never has this been truer than when the natural rhythm of our lives has been so changed by this pandemic.
Find out more about acceptance
In the spirit of not reinventing the wheel I would like to highlight the giants on whose shoulder’s I have stood to write this article. These two people have freely published some excellent, practical guides for how to handle the Coronavirus pandemic with serenity.
Dr Tamar Black (2020) STAY HERE: A tool for parents to help their family cope with COVID-19
Dr Russ Harris (2020) FACE COVID: How to respond effectively to the Corona crisis
Dr Sarah Whitaker is a Clinical Psychologist working in both with us in the Godalming Practice and also in the NHS. She draws heavily on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). This is a therapeutic approach that underpins this article and the recommended resources. She is ardent about using ACT and Compassion Focussed Approaches to help people live more effectively with the hand of cards they’ve been dealt.