Facilitating Acceptance, Part I: Gratitude
Unwanted Realities and Disturbance
Life seldom gives us exactly what we wanted, or in the way we wanted it. This can be difficult for us in many ways, causing a lot of disturbance. The way we expected reality to turn out just doesn’t match the way that it really turned out, and this incongruity produces much suffering.
Expectations are like entry ramps ----> into our journey through the spiral of non-acceptance. We experience at least 2 stages on this journey, and enter into the spiral through at least 2 ----> entry ramps. Sometimes we get stuck. We shift back and forth between different stages. It’s also common to employ denial even when we find ourselves in another stage. Sometimes denial is an automatic defense, sometimes it’s an outright refusal, and sometimes it is chosen consciously.
Our disturbance can result from unfulfilled expectations, or from living according to our assumptions. We take things for granted. We just assume that life will continue the way it has done for so long, such as that a loved one will
always be there, and then they
die. We expect, we assume, and we wish
that reality could be different, and in our entitlement we maintain that it
should be different ( ----> anger). The
great problem here is that our expectations of what should have happened have
absolutely no bearing on what’s actually going to take place. It’s like making fairytale wishes upon
These disturbances are experienced with many losses and struggles, even if they are relatively minor. Take the following case:
I remember one day driving to the local branch of my bank, and it was gone. All that was left was boarded-up windows and charcoaled bricks. After saying, “No, it can’t be,” (----> denial/shock), I remember trying to peer beyond the boards to see if the bank was still operating. I remember thinking, “is that annoying teller still there? If I look hard enough maybe I’ll see her.” This was my ---> denial, because I assumed and expected the bank to be there, and it wasn’t.
I remember then shifting ----> to a mixture of anger and mostly sadness, with racing thoughts, “I’m going to have to find another branch, and it will be a longer drive, and it’ll be unfamiliar, maybe the tellers there will be worse, I don’t want to deal with this!” ( ----> denial, experienced while in anger).
Up until that time my mind had been set: the bank was supposed to be there. Then, I employed one of my coping mechanisms to proceed further along the journey towards acceptance. I chose to trust, to hope that it would work out, and to believe that there would be some purpose in it. I verbalized my self-talk message, “This is also for the best.”
A therapeutic goal should be to optimize our capacity and ability to navigate through this spiral. After all, the less time we spend opposing reality, the less time we have to spend stuck in the disturbance of the spiral.
There are many acceptance facilitating mechanisms. Gratitude is one such mechanism, that I wish to focus on in this article. Gratitude enables us to get our foot in the door; part of us can be in disturbance, while another part can say “thank you.” We don’t even have feel grateful in order to say “thank you.” It’s surely possible to experience disturbance, while at the same time choosing to move our vocalization apparatus into action in order to articulate these words, “thank you.” Here’s how it can go:
Adam gets a parking ticket because he lost track of time. He removes the ticket from where it was carefully placed under his windshield wiper, and looks at it with disbelief ( ----> denial and shock). He feels himself beginning to shift ----> to anger, but before he does, he catches himself by employing a thought stopping technique, and then chooses a replacement thought of gratitude. He tells himself that there must be a purpose in this tribulation. Based on the track record of other tribulations he’s experienced before, he reminds himself that with some time and some thought he very well may discover multiple purposes. But, before he even begins to search through his thoughts for possible reasons and scenarios, he takes a moment to simply verbalize “thank you”.
Our Limited Perspective
A prerequisite for employing gratitude in this way is our understanding that we have very limited perspective. Think about it: we perceive the world with only a mere 5 senses; our 2 eyes see in only 1 direction, and only the present moment that is in front of our eyes; our eyes are blinded by many things, such as our desires, fears, power, and idealization; we even see things that aren’t there; we don’t see how today’s suffering will shape us and make us grow; we don’t see which of our actions the suffering at hand is correcting; we don’t see our future; we don’t our see past lives, that may be driving and directing current happenings and events. This list is just for starters. What we do see, though, most poignantly, is what feels good to us and what feels bad to us. We are focused solely on this, we feel it strongly, and we therefore inevitably make a mistake in judgment; we confuse what feels good with what really is good, and for the best.
The struggling diabetic says he wants to eat chocolate cake because it’s so “good.” He focuses on how he imagines it will feel on his tongue and in his belly. If you ask him, he will tell you that the cake is “good.” One second, how can it be good if it may send him into a diabetic coma? What he means is only that it will taste and feel good, when in actuality the cake will be very bad for him and damaging! His struggle is because he maladaptively focuses on the wrong thing, on his subjective feeling of good, not thinking about what will be best for him.
Now, plug in any other variables into this equation, such as Rachel who knows that drugs are destroying her life and her health, yet she can’t stop. One of the reasons is because she automatically focuses on the overwhelming good feeling of her drug. In the moment we are blinded by what we imagine will feel good, which is a result of our limited perspective. We just seem to be programmed to look automatically, and with tunnel vision, at what we feel.
The suffering feels bad now, but we can choose to believe that it will be for the best. In addition to activating our belief, we can also acknowledge our track history of how previous life struggles yielded “secondary gains.” Expressing gratitude for these secondary gains enables us to own and embrace them. This results in an acceptance of the entire situation responsible for yielding those gains, including the struggle itself; if we would be unwilling to forgo the gains, then we must also accept the struggle that yielded the gains. We can’t have one without the other. It’s analogous to a seed that needs to first decompose before it can grow and eventually produce fruit. That’s the way we grow; we can’t yield the growth, unless there’s struggle first.
Ask yourself if you have ever experienced a tribulation, that only later and when looking back you were able to see how it benefitted you in some way, or shaped you and made you who you are. These secondary gains are usually only recognizable when looking back in retrospect, and at the time, we can’t see any purpose.
If you tell a child that it’s for the best that his parents punished him for breaking the rules, the child will get angry and think you’re crazy. Discuss it with him again in 15 years when he’s an adult, and he will say, “Well, I didn’t see it as good at the time. But with my adult perspective and growing wisdom, I now understand that my father was disciplining me, that I needed disciplining, and that this shaped me to become a moral and conscientious person, and it was for the best.” As an adult, we gain wisdom and humility, which augments our perspective.
Gratitude, when approached in this way, carries with it a post facto and “after the fact” quality; the wish it had never happened, and the acknowledgement that it’s reality and for the best. We can express gratitude for the secondary gains and then choose to believe that they will later become apparent. We simply have to create the dichotomy: our ideal wants (based on our sorely limited perspective), verses choosing to believe that the tribulation will be good in the end, and for the best.