When we are told something we don’t want to hear or are confronted by a situation we cannot face, our reaction is often one of denial, refusal or resistance. It may take the form of a shouted or whispered “NOOOOOO!” or a deep sigh and shake of the head. Our inner teenager may stomp her feet and storm from the room. Or we may simply turn our back, pretending that what was said or done, never happened. Problem is, while denial can be a great, and even helpful place to visit. Its not someplace to take up permanent residence. Doing so takes an enormous amount of energy, and eventually, reality comes knocking. And when it does, denial and illusion no longer hold up. When it comes to reality, The Borg* had it right, “Resistance is futile.”
You might be familiar with the five stages of grief associated with the death of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These same stages apply to other forms of loss including the end of a relationship, being fired or laid off, or receiving the diagnosis of a chronic or life-threatening disease. Unfortunately, in the world of chronic illness “acceptance” is often synonymous with “surrender.” It may be thought of as passive and without fight. But to practice true acceptance is no easy feat. It requires courage.
Acceptance, simply put, is acknowledging the situation for what it is, not for what we want it to be. We many not like it. We may not agree with it. We may wish things were different. But none of that matters. Whatever the truth of the moment is, you can only move forward by acknowledging it. The following is a quote from Yoga for Pain Relief by yoga therapist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. Although it speaks to working with pain, you could substitute with any challenge you are having difficulty accepting.
“Acceptance doesn’t mean embracing your pain or identifying yourself only as a person with pain. It means a willingness to experience pain as a part of life and a willingness to move on with your life even if your pain persists.”
This doesn’t mean you become passive, held hostage to the situation. Quite the opposite. It is by accepting things as they are that we can then decide the most skillful way to proceed. We can operate without blinders, reviewing options with a critical eye to whether or not they fit our reality.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” ~ James Baldwin
I’m not sure why, but I had no problem accepting the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Maybe that was because I had googled my symptoms and an overwhelming number of the results had come back MS. Maybe it was because I was relieved that the visual problems I was experiencing weren’t permanent. Maybe it was the amazing support I received from my future husband and immediate family. Their general reaction was “There’s no cure. We can’t change it. It could be worse. So, where do we go from here.”
Whatever the reason, I am glad I was able to so easily accept the diagnosis, because my acceptance practice is continually challenged by flare-ups (periodic vision loss, weakness in one or more extremities, cognitive functioning issues) and day-to-day symptoms (muscle pain, permanent night vision loss, fatigue). Yep, just like life, acceptance is an ongoing activity. And that’s where yoga and meditation are a HUGE help. I’ll discuss how in Acceptance Part 2 (coming soon).
* The Borg were featured on several episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the movie “Star Trek First Contact.” While The Borg are eventually defeated, the crew of the Enterprise had to face their reality to make it so. If you are unfamiliar with the series or in the mood for a flashback, here’s a brief clip.