Are You Turning Your Pain Into Suffering?

Happy New Year Primers! I hope everyone reading this had a safe and happy New Year’s celebration. My family and I sure did; however, it wasn’t without pain and difficulty. Our experiences over New Year’s is what inspired today’s topic of radical acceptance.

Let me just start by saying that I realize how blessed I am to live this amazing, adventurous life. My blessings are not lost on me and I try to practice gratitude on a daily basis. With that being said, I experience challenges and painful events in life that can be very difficult to accept and to tolerate. Things that are out of my control, things that I don’t agree with and things that I don’t like happen to me the same way they happen to you.

I am going to use the last 48 hours as an example. My stepson Dominic was in town to celebrate the New Year with us and we couldn’t have been happier about it. My husband and I decided to take Dominic and our two sons, Jacob and Jaxon, to Northern Michigan to stay in a cottage and spend a day on the slopes. It would be a first for our family; all 5 of us hanging out on the mountain, feeling free, laughing and creating lasting memories. The plan was to wake up early on New Year’s Eve day and drive the hour and fifteen minutes to the mountain, spend the day there and celebrate 2019 back at the cottage later that evening. We would sleep in on New Year’s Day and head home at a reasonable hour for work the next day.

We woke the boys up early and I proudly had each of their favorite donut flavors waiting for them as they sleepily sat down at the kitchen table. About a half an hour later as we were getting our gear on, my husband hastily rushes inside from loading the car and asks where the bin with the snow pants and ski coats are. I stare blankly at him because, quite honestly, I assumed he had loaded it into the car as that his part of his preparation duties. Well, my imperfect husband realized that in the hustle of loading up two vehicles for the cottage yesterday, he forgot to go back downstairs and pack the bin with the snow gear in it. HOW FRUSTRATING!

So what did that mean for us? Well, it meant that my husband had to drive the hour and 45 minutes back to our house to pick up the bin and drive another 3 hours to the mountain where he would meet me and the boys. In essence, it meant that we start skiing at 2:00 p.m. instead of 9:00 a.m. In reality, not that bad despite the extra money in gas that it takes to drive all the way back home and back up north. So the boys and I did our best to pass the time at the cottage while dad made his trek back home. Since we took two vehicles up north, I was able to meet my husband at the mountain instead of having him come back to the cottage to pick us up: BONUS!

The boys and I left the cottage around noon that day to meet my husband at the mountain. In reality, the commute was more like an hour and forty minutes given the intense rain we experienced that was supposed to turn to snow for a truly enjoyable winter experience on the slopes. Well, when we got there it was still raining and the weather forecast changed completely. Unrelenting rain until 9:00 p.m., they were no longer calling for snow.

That may not seem like a big deal to some of you, but if you’ve ever skied with young kids (our youngest is 6) you know that rain is one of the worst conditions to have. You feel like wet turds, it is nearly impossible to get dry and falling in rain and snow is very different than falling in just snow. You can brush off snow from your body, you can’t brush off rain ya’ know?

So after my husband’s nearly 5 hour trip in the car and our hour and a half commute to meet him there we turned back around, tales between our legs, and did our best to salvage the rest of the day. We ended up making the most of it, making food, telling stories, watching football (my Spartans lost which was icing on the cake for that day) and laughing. We did a lot of laughing that night, probably because we knew we would have the next day to ski and the weather conditions were going to be amazing!

Despite having to pay an additional $50 in lift tickets to ski the next day, we had a great time and no one got injured, thank God! We started New Years Day off on a positive note. The boys had a blast, everyone was healthy and everyone was happy…until we got home that night.

My husband made a quick stop on the way home to get gas so I arrived home a few minutes before him with Dominic and Jacob in the car; he had Jaxon with him. It was about 8:30 p.m. that night when we got home, everyone was exhausted from a full day of skiing combined with the car ride home. Dominic had a 5:00 a.m. flight the next day and I had to be up at the same time for work. I was looking forward to a nice shower, my book and my bed.

Those expectations were abruptly abandoned when Jacob used the bathroom and came out in a panic asking me if I heard the noise he was hearing and telling me that the wall was really hot! Seeing the panic in his eyes I quieted and to my horror I heard the noise too…rushing water! I quickly ran downstairs to see my ceiling spewing water on the Christmas tree underneath it, saturated ceiling tiles fallen to the floor in pieces, puddles of water on over half of my carpet, wet drywall on another part of the ceiling and on the walls and wet wood in the storage room. I was in a panic and full disclosure here, despite being a trained therapist I am not very effective during personal crisis.

D.J. thankfully arrived 5 minutes later but not after I called him in a frenzy. Fast forward 4 days later, more than half of our basement is down to bare bones; we ripped up carpet and padding. Our hardwood floors on our main floor have started to buckle from water saturating the subfloor and there are holes in our drywall as well as our ceiling from where we had to remove it to prevent mold. As I type this post, my house sounds like an airport with two industrial size fans blowing as well as an industrial dehumidifier that we rented to remove the moisture.

I can say with honesty that today I am in a way more accepting space than I was a couple days ago. After we came home to disaster I had a very hard time accepting all of the “bad” things that happened over the course of the last 48 hours. There were so many things that happened that I didn’t like and that wasn’t fair, from having to waste time and gas money to drive all the way back home and get the snow gear, to making the hike to the mountain only to turn around due to a change in weather, to having to pay extra money to purchase lift tickets the next day to finally coming home to a flood throughout our home. I was mentally and emotionally over it! I couldn’t take anymore and I spent a few days throwing myself a mental pity party. Why me, this isn’t fair and why did this happen were mantras I played on repeat in my mind.

Several times I would walk downstairs and just cry because of the damage that occurred. Accepting reality for what it was proved to be very difficult for me and I realized I had to work on practicing acceptance if I wanted to make the situation any better.

A therapeutic skill that I learned, and am working really hard on practicing myself, is called radical acceptance. I learned radical acceptance through my intensive training in dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT. Radical acceptance is considered a distress tolerance skill in DBT and it is essential to practice this skill when we are experiencing emotional distress or crisis.

Radical acceptance is a choice and it is a skillful behavior that involves accepting with your mind, body and soul the things in your life that you can’t change.1 This is a skill that takes much effort because it is incredibly difficult to accept reality if we don’t like it and don’t agree with it.

Radical Acceptance:1(417), 2(151)
• Is seeing reality for what it factually is, even if we don’t like it.
• Is the opposite of asking “why me”.
• Is acknowledging that “it is what it is”.
• Is a choice that can help you move on.
• Is essential in letting go of suffering and moving toward healing
• Is NOT agreeing with or condoning what happened.
• Is NOT liking reality.
• Is NOT giving up or giving in.

I certainly don’t like or agree with what happened to me and I can say with confidence that the last few days of 2018 and first few of 2019 have been challenging and difficult for my family and I. It has taken a lot of work but I am able to accept what happened; I don’t like it, I don’t agree with it and I can’t change it. If I don’t accept what happened then I can’t proceed skillfully in trying to work through the problem and make my reality the very best it can be.

Signs that we are turning your pain into suffering can include:
• Asking ourselves “why me?”.
• Stuck in a rut: experiencing steady, negative emotions.
• Feeling paralyzed and avoiding healthy behaviors that can improve your mood (exercise, going out with friends, watching your favorite t.v. shows).
• An increase in irritability or fear.
• All or nothing/black and white thinking-using words like “everything”, “nothing”, “always”, “never” and“forever”.

Fighting reality or refusing to accept it does not change reality.3 All we are doing when we refuse to accept reality is make things worse by adding the pain of resistance and turning temporary pain into unrelenting suffering.

Beliefs that get in the way of radical acceptance can include:2
• Believing that accepting equates to personal weakness.
• Believing that acceptance means approval of the situation.
• Believing that acceptance is a surrender to a life of pain.
• Believing that acceptance is a reflection of blame or fault.

Emotions that get in the way of acceptance can include:2
• Intense negative emotions such as anger or resentment towards the person or group of people who caused the crisis.
• Rage about societal and systemic inequality and injustice in the world.
• Regret or guilt about personal behaviors.
• Personal shame about a mistake you made or failure you had.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.- Haruki Murakami

If you find yourself struggling with your current reality first ask yourself if there is a problem to be solved. If so, start there and see what actions you can take to help resolve the problem. In my case for example, accepting that our house flooded and caused significant damage was the first step in a serious of steps needed to work towards resolution. Tearing out wet drywall to prevent mold, ripping up carpet and padding, renting fans and dehumidifiers, contacting our insurance company and getting an estimate on damages can only occur after I accept what happened.

Let’s be honest, what other choice do we have? If we throw temper tantrums, have extensive pity parties, withdraw from our lives or punish ourselves, reality remains the same and suffering ensues. Acceptance is not giving up or giving in, it is not losing self-respect or going against our values. Acceptance is an essential and intentional choice we make to move forward and make our lives the best they can possibly be.

Stuff happens to us that causes us pain. Pain cannot be avoided in life. Each and every one of us has had stuff happen to us that caused us emotional and physical pain. The only way we were able to get through it was by first accepting that it happened. Sometimes there is a problem to be solved after acceptance and sometimes there isn’t. Take death for example. There is no problem to be solved after a loved one passes away. However, acceptance of the loss is the first step in moving towards healing and healthy grief.

To learn more about radical acceptance check out this article on Psychology Today.

1.Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual 2nd Edition.

2.Rathus, J.H. & Miller, A.L. (2015). DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents.

3.Hall, K. (2012). Radical acceptance

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