Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Bumpy Road to Acceptance and the Happiness It Brings

I recently heard the quote “Being an adult is learning to live with disappointment.” I’m not sure I agree with it, but I understand what it means. It means that no matter how amazing our lives are, we aren’t always going to get what we want. And being an adult means we have to learn how to cope with disappointment. 

And yet, I think it’s more helpful to focus acceptance rather than disappointment. I think adulthood is about learning to accept things with grace. Accepting the good things and accepting the bad things. Taking responsibility for the things we need to be responsible for. 

Growing up, I was considered mature at a young age. People always told me I was a little adult or they'd say, “Oh I thought you were so much older.” And that was because I took on a lot of responsibility as a young person and that impressed people. So I grew up thinking I was adult because I could do all these things that were considered “adult.” But the reality was I had no idea what it meant to be an adult. 

Yes, I had no problem taking on responsibility for big projects. I could choreograph an entire musical full of adults. I could tell people what to do and be super organized. But I had very little idea about being responsible for my own life.

Growing up, my parents were great and they were supportive of me in every way. I almost think they were too supportive. I became a grown-up person without ever understanding how to get my laundry done regularly. Or how to clean up after myself in the kitchen. I grew up not realizing that it was an inconvenience to everyone around me if I left my dirty cups all over the house. I was well into my 20's before I didn’t expect my parents to solve problems for me when it wasn’t “convenient” for me to do so. 

My teens and my early twenties are filled with memories of waiting for my life to start. I was in a rush to get out high school and to go to college. I was in a rush to get out of college and get married and get a job. I was in rush to have kids.  

Those years are a blur to me because I kept thinking "This is what I’m doing until my real life begins." I thought I didn’t need to worry about being happy because I assumed I’d be happy when I finally was "grown up." The problem with thinking this way was that, at some point, I realized that life was passing me by and the idea of arriving at the mythical place of “happiness” wasn’t happening.

It wasn’t until my late twenties, after I had a child, that I finally began to understand what it meant to be an adult. I couldn’t not do the laundry just because I didn’t feel like it. I couldn’t stay in bed if I didn’t feel well. Frankly, aside from my mom—who will probably always feel sorry for me—nobody was feeling sorry for me. I was an adult. What felt like overwhelming responsibility and inconvenience to me was simply what millions of other parents had faced all through time: being an adult. 

Even after having a child, I felt as if I still had so much time. I thought there was the possibility of starting an amazing company or becoming famous or doing whatever I wanted at the time. But when I reached my 30's, I started to get an unsettling feeling of dissatisfaction. I realized that most of those dreams were probably no longer a possibility. I began wondering to myself, “If I never do anything more with my life, will I be okay with that?” For several years I was unsure and this led to that underlying feeling of dissatisfaction.

Then I started second-guessing my life. I'd think, “If I'd just done this I'd feel happier” or “If I just do that I’ll feel happier.” But no matter how much I accomplished or tried to become what I thought I wanted to become, the feelings of insecurity and doubt remained. I got a job. I lost the baby weight. I did some professional acting.  I started a dance company. But it was never enough. 

Finally, I realized that nothing I did was going to make me feel better. It clicked inside my brain that to truly feel better I had be able to accept what I am. I had to be able to accept what I am right in this moment. 

To be honest, if I could truly explain how I came to this revelation, I'd probably be a millionaire. The idea that true happiness is to be found by accepting yourself has been around a long time. But no one can tell you exactly how to do it. And it’s not easy. It’s not something you can simply read about and suddenly feel different. Even after I realized that acceptance was the key to my feeling better, it didn’t change everything for me overnight. 

It’s taken years. It’s taken years of wrestling with the concept of acceptance—even challenging the idea—before I finally learned to trust that my life isn’t about what I have done in the past or will do in the future. It’s about right now. That if I can accept where I am right now, then I will be able to accept myself where I am in the next moment. And the next. And the next. 

Even now, there are often times when I'm filled with doubts and fear. When that happens, I can feel myself getting caught in the whirlwind of fighting against what is or find myself wondering “What if?” But the difference is that I'm able to catch myself now. I'm able to slow myself down and remind myself that whatever scenarios I’ve created in my mind don’t matter. All that matters is this moment. All that matters is putting one foot in front of the other; taking one breath after another. 

And while this state of mind doesn’t solve all my problems—I still often struggleit definitely helps. It helps me accept that the life I am living is the life I am living. I can choose to enjoy it—to really appreciate it—or I can choose to be unhappy. I am choosing to try to be happy. I am choosing to accept what my life is. It doesn’t mean that I'm never disappointed, or that I will stop growing or trying new things and reaching for new stars; but whatever what happens. And I will choose to try and make the best of it. 

For my mom, becoming chronically ill has truly challenged her ideas about acceptance. Here are her answers to my questions about it.

When you realized that your illness was probably chronic, what was your reaction?

My reaction in the early months and years was denial. Denial, anger, and a lot of self-blame. It was because I thought back then that people didn't get sick and not recover, and the people around me seemed to feel the same way—even if they weren't trying to be judgmental. So I thought, what's wrong with me that I'm not getting better? There was a lot of self-blame which is very common when people first become chronically ill.

My reaction changed when I realized that this illness was just an illness. Even though I was sick, I was still a whole person—just as anyone who is disabled is still a whole person. A person missing a limb is still a whole person. That's when I stopped blaming myself. And when the self-blame went away, so did a lot of the denial and anger. I still get angry every once in a while, but it used to be the way I felt all the time. It was awful. I hid it. I hid it from my kids and my friends. But my husband knew. And I knew.

How long do you think it took before you were able to start to come to terms with acceptance of your illness?

I get asked that question a lot, and it always throws me because it's been 15 1/2 years since I became chronically ill, so it's getting harder and harder to remember. Not harder to remember when I got sick—that's seared into my mind. But it's hard to remember when I started to turn my mind around. 

So, what I do is count backward from when I started writing my first book because that was when the mental healing began. I would say it took about six years to start to accept this illness. I can only hope that my books, my writing, and maybe these interviews help other people not take so long to start moving toward acceptance. Life is too short.

For some people acceptance is the same thing as giving up, or resignation. For you, what is the difference between acceptance and resignation?

Acceptance, as I see it, is acknowledging where you have to start in your life. And for me the main feature of where I have to start is that I'm sick. I'm chronically ill. There's hope in acceptance because you can't take steps to make things better for yourself until you stop and acknowledge how things are for you right now.

So, take a moment to truly acknowledge how you feel and take that as your starting point. For me, that starting point is: "I'm in a body that's sick." Whatever your starting point is, from there, you can open to possibilities of what you might be able to do within the limitations of your illness.

I can't take credit for the expression "start where you are." The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has a book titled, Start Where You Are, and that title really resonated with me, so I use it to help myself and help others. The emphasis is on start—starting to see possibilities for making changes in your life. Start with an open and mind and an open heart. That's acceptance.

Resignation, on the other hand, is giving up on life. There's tremendous aversion in it and a lot of anger and resentment. It's the attitude of "Life is unfair. I give up. I'll just be miserable from now on." We've all been there. That's resignation. You're treading water when you're feeling that way, and so there's no chance to improve your life.

But there's hope in acceptance.

I went through a resignation phase. But then I realized that, even though I'm limited in what I can do, I'm still alive. You talked about this in your terrific piece above—how you've chosen to be happy. (Sorry for a little detour here, Mara, but I want to comment on one thing in your piece—I don't feel sorry for you. I do worry about you at times though, so that sounds like a more accurate characterization—to me anyway!)

Okay. Back to choosing to be happy. Obviously, no one can be happy all the time but, like you, I've also chosen it as a direction. I choose to find things that are fulfilling to do with my life. I choose to look for joy where I can find it. 

When you're resigned you don't move forward and so you can't even make choices that are likely to make things better for you. That's why resignation is a sad place to be. We've all been there, but hopefully by recognizing the feeling when it arises, we can learn to acknowledge it and move on.

What is your advice for people who are struggling with the idea of acceptance of their current situation?

I have to go to some of the Buddha's teachings here to answer that. Most people have heard of the first noble truth. In it, the Buddha provided a list of the experiences we can all expect in life. And one of the things on that list is illness. There are other things, such as growing old, separation from loved ones, etc. (I'm sure these lessons are included in other religious teachings as well, but I am familiar with Buddhism.)

So I look at the Buddha's list and think, "Wow. Chronic illness is a natural part of the life cycle." That teaching has helped me a lot. It made a huge difference to me to be able to say that this is one of the things on the list that all of us can expect to experience even though it's unpleasant. And so, since illness an inevitable part of human existence, I'd advise people not to fight their current situation. Try to see it as just the way your particular life is unfolding. Illness could happen to anyone. 

It's also helpful to remember that everyone has things about their lives they're not happy with. For those who are healthy, it might be not being able to find love or hating their job. Life offers us many wonderful things but it also has its share of sorrows, and they're on that list from the first noble truth. 

The response to a tough situation should not be resignation because that carries so many negative and painful emotions with it. That said, if it's too hard to move right away from resignation to acceptance, I suggest practicing self-compassion. All that means is recognizing that you're suffering and being nice to yourself about it. So, acknowledge how hard it is to be sick or in pain, and be nice to yourself about it. You can even speak kindly to yourself about how hard it is. In my books, I suggest crafting self-compassion phrases that you can say silently to yourself, almost like a mantra. 

There's no way around it, it's hard to feel sick all the time. Really hard. But it's easier if you can accept it. To do that, take your chronic illness as your starting point and then look around for what might be enjoyable for you. And always, always, be nice to yourself.


  1. Thank you so much for this excellent piece. The phrase that most resonates for me is "And so, since illness an inevitable part of human existence, I'd advise people not to fight their current situation."
    This is the hardest thing with which I must contend, as my condition is deeply challenging. Each day I work on "not fighting," and your books are very helpful in this process. I hope one day to come to fuller acceptance, and appreciate your words and your example.

    1. Thank you for your suggestion to do a blog on this topic! I think many people feel the same way you do and hopefully through continued conversation we can all work together to be more accepting of and loving towards ourselves.--M

  2. many years ago while trying to deal with alcoholism i was all divided up, part of me wanted to quit and part of me wanted a drink, a civil war was going on inside me. after a year and a half of this constant conflict, while in route to an AA meeting i had to stop at a red light, it was misty and a fog had set in. the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that read " happiness is and before i could read the rest it disappeared into the dark. i asked myself, if some one asked me to define happiness what would i say, and it came to me " Self Acceptance " . it was then that i realized that i was no longer in conflict with myself. several weeks later i saw the same bumper sticker on a different car supposedly and it read " happiness is owning a horse "

    1. Wow that's a beautiful story. And I have found that the universe does have a funny sense of humor and I take what I can from it.--M

    2. Joe - I loved your story. Read it to my husband. Thanks for sharing this. Toni