Stop Fighting Reality And Deal with It Instead
We spend so much time and energy fighting the things in our lives that we don’t like or that cause us pain. In this post you’ll learn a skill that helps you be more accepting of things in your life— even when they’re painful—so that you trigger fewer emotions for yourself. The end result of being more accepting is that you’ll be a happier and emotionally healthier person, a person that other people will want to be around more often; and you’ll have healthier relationships.
When we talk about reality acceptance, we’re talking about acknowledging reality as it is—and in fact, not judging it as good or bad. Think of the motto of reality acceptance as “It is what it is” not in a “whatever” kind of way, but in a way that you really mean. What you’re really saying is: This is the way it is; this is reality, whether I like it or not . Then, of course, you can look to see whether there’s something you can do to change the situation if you don’t like it.
Before we go any further, let’s get you applying this to your own life. Take a moment to think about how accepting or nonaccepting you are. When something difficult happens in your life, is your typical reaction to throw a temper tantrum? Maybe you yell, or you just think to yourself about the situation and how unfair or stupid or crazy it is, over and over again. Maybe you escape into gaming, or drugs, or alcohol to avoid thinking about the situation at all; maybe you hurt yourself on purpose, or you just turn to sleep in order to avoid the world for a while. We often see a lot of drama when people are refusing to accept something: the friend who keeps after her ex, trying to get him back; people lying to each other or going to extremes in other ways to make a situation more to their liking. There are lots of ways we can refuse to accept reality; these are just some of them. The problem is that refusing to accept something actually just increases your emotional pain—typically, you’ll become more angry, bitter, resentful, or frustrated about the situation.
But maybe you’re a person who is more accepting, at least some of the time. When you accept something, it doesn’t mean that you like the situation or that you don’t want it to be different; it just means that you’re acknowledging your reality as it is, rather than fighting it (also known as judging it!).
To help you better understand this idea of acceptance, think of a time in your life when something painful happened—perhaps someone you loved died (a grandparent, a friend, a pet); maybe you didn’t get something you really wanted (a part in the school play or a job at a specific store); maybe something really painful was happening in your life (like being hurt in some way by someone you trusted, your parents telling you they’re splitting up, or seeing someone you really like in a relationship with someone else).
At first, most people will fight this pain—you judge it, you vent and rant about it, you might even shout about it, and you refuse to accept it. But typically, as time goes on, you start on the path of accepting whatever the situation is that’s causing you pain. So think about this: with the situation you have in mind, what was the difference between when it first happened and you were fighting your reality (for example, thinking how unfair it is, that it shouldn’t be happening, that it’s horrible, and so on), and when you were able to be more accepting of it?
Most people notice a sense of relief, or of feeling “lighter,” like a weight has been lifted. When you get to acceptance, the situation has less power over you. You tend to spend less time thinking about it, and when you do think about it, it triggers less emotional pain than it used to. And this is important to note—the pain doesn’t go away when you get to acceptance, but your suffering decreases. There’s a saying that pain is inevitable in life, but suffering is optional. This is because suffering is what happens when you refuse to accept the pain in your life. In other words, when you fight reality and judge what’s happening, you trigger more emotional pain for yourself. When you get to acceptance, the pain doesn’t go away, but the suffering dissipates.
Before we look at how to get to acceptance, let’s look at some examples to help you understand the difference between fighting reality and accepting it.
Fighting Reality: Carter
Remember Carter’s situation: he pushed away his friends and bandmates with his anger. When he initially lost these people in his life, Carter’s anger took over and he fought this reality, thinking things like: They’re losers anyway, and I don’t need them ; We’ve been friends forever, and they should have stuck by me; and They deserve everything they got, and then some. Carter was judging his friends for giving up on him, and he was refusing to accept his role in the outcome; he wasn’t taking responsibility for his actions, but was blaming everyone else—in other words, he was fighting reality.
This kind of thinking will affect Carter’s behavior toward others. So, for example, when he and Merrin are spending time together, his fighting reality is going to seep into their interactions. Carter will likely start thinking about losing his friends, which will lead to talking and venting to Merrin about it. Carter’s anger (his suffering) is going to increase, which will probably become a problem in their relationship, especially since Merrin has already made it clear that Carter needs to work on getting his anger under control if he wants to stay with her.
Accepting Reality: Carter
As time went on and Carter’s emotions lessened in intensity, he was able to see more clearly the role he played in this situation, and he was able to accept some responsibility: I took my anger out on them in an unhealthy way, and they didn’t deserve that ; I need to learn to manage my anger in healthier ways or I’m going to lose more people in my life; and I can’t go back and change what I did, but I don’t want to keep doing the same things in the future.
As you can see, Carter’s mind-set has changed and he’s become more accepting of his reality. He’s stopped judging his friends, and he’s not judging himself either—he’s just acknowledging reality as it is, and then looking at how he can prevent himself from making the same unwise choices in the future.
Fighting Reality: Rebecca
Rebecca is still having a really hard time accepting the fact that her mother has a new boyfriend: It’s not fair that she puts Tom first all the time, and she’s ruining our relationship ; she can’t see what a jerk he is, and she’s stupid to stay with him ; she’s totally choosing him over her own daughter, but family should always come first . Rebecca is feeling hurt that her relationship with her mother has changed, but her thoughts are increasing her suffering—she’s feeling anger, resentment, and bitterness toward her mother and Tom. This increase in painful emotions (suffering) is likely to make things worse, as Rebecca takes the emotions out on her mother—becoming more argumentative, for example, and even saying some of the judgmental things she’s thinking, which will only cause her mother to feel hurt and angry in return.
Accepting Reality: Rebecca
If Rebecca worked instead on accepting the fact that her mother has a new boyfriend, things would be quite different. By “accepting” I don’t mean that Rebecca should like the fact that her mom has a new boyfriend (or that she should like the new boyfriend!), but that she should start acknowledging this as her new reality in order to reduce her suffering. To change fighting reality to acceptance, Rebecca’s thinking would go something like this: I don’t like that my mom has a new boyfriend, but I can’t change it ; I feel hurt that Mom is spending more time with Tom than she is with me, and I miss her; or Even though I don’t like Tom, I can understand that Mom would want someone new in her life. By thinking about the situation in this way, Rebecca is reducing her suffering—her anger, resentment, and bitterness are going to come down or disappear altogether. Her hurt is likely to remain, because the bottom line is that she still misses spending time with her mother. But if Rebecca can reduce her suffering by becoming more accepting of reality, she’ll be more able to access her wise self and therefore to have more successful interactions with her mom when she tries to talk to her about these things.
Now that you have an idea of how being more accepting of reality will be helpful for you—in terms of reducing your own emotional intensity, and also therefore in improving your ability to relate to other people—let’s take a look at how you can practice this skill.
How to Accept Reality
You’ve probably heard that old cliché “Time heals all wounds.” Well, I don’t believe this is true exactly. But I do agree that, usually, the further away you move from something in time, the less painful it becomes. In other words, emotions do tend to dissipate naturally over time. At first when you lose someone, for example—whether because the relationship came to an end or because that person die —the pain might feel excruciating. But in most instances, as time goes on the pain becomes more bearable; as you get used to the loss you’ve suffered, your emotions gradually become less intense. Of course, the more painful something is, the longer this takes, and the same holds true for practicing the skill of acceptance: the more painful a situation is, the longer it will take for you to accept it.
The good news is, once you’ve learned about reality acceptance, you can consciously practice this skill to help reduce the suffering in your life; you no longer have to just sit back and wait for time to take its course.
Make the commitment.
The first step is to decide for yourself whether you’re going to work on this skill. Acceptance is hard work, but I really hope you believe me when I tell you it’s worth the effort in the long run. And if you don’t believe me, think back to that situation in your life that started out as really painful, but didn’t hurt nearly as much once you came to accept it—that’s how helpful this skill is. If you have a situation that you’re fighting (and most of us have at least a few, if not many), ask yourself this question: do you really want to continue to spend this much time and energy on this situation? If the answer is no, then make the commitment to yourself: As of right now, I’m going to work on accepting (name your situation here).
Notice the fighting.
The next step in accepting reality is (surprise, surprise!) to be mindful. Pay attention to your thoughts and your emotions, and notice when you’re fighting reality instead of accepting. And of course, don’t judge yourself when you notice that you are fightin —just accept that you’re not accepting. Remember, judgments will only increase your emotions and make it more difficult for you to access your wisdom.
Talk back to your thoughts.
Once you’ve noticed that you’re fighting reality, the next step is to turn your mind back to acceptance. In other words, you notice you’re fighting reality, and you talk back to those thoughts. This turns into what I call the “internal argument.” Let’s take a peek at Rebecca’s thoughts for an example of what this might look like.
Fighting reality: I can’t believe she’s staying with that loser; doesn’t she see that she’s totally ruining our relationship because of him?
Accepting: Wait; I said I was going to work on accepting this situation, and I’m getting myself worked up again. I don’t want to do this.
Fighting reality: But she’s blind; he’s so using her, and she’s just throwing everything away for him.
Accepting: No. I’m working on accepting. Mom has every right to make her own choices. This isn’t helping.
Fighting reality: But I shouldn’t have to accept this situation; she should know better!
Accepting: I know that in the long run, accepting will help me feel better. It is what it is, and even though I don’t like it, I can’t change it.
Talking back to those thoughts to get to acceptance isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of energy, especially when you first start to practice this skill. But keep reminding yourself of those situations in your life that you came to accept; knowing how much better it feels when you get there can help keep you motivated to practice.
I already mentioned that the more painful a situation is, the harder it will be and the longer it will take to get to acceptance. But keep this in mind: If, when you start practicing reality acceptance, you find you’re able to accept reality for only three seconds out of the day, that’s three seconds of less suffering you’ve just experienced. And soon that will grow to thirty seconds, then three minutes, then thirty minutes, and so on.
Of course, once you get there doesn’t mean you necessarily stay there. Unfortunately, there will be times when you might have accepted a situation you dislike, but then your dislike gets retriggered. For example, let’s say Rebecca finally gets to acceptance of her mother’s new relationship. Months go by, and the relationship isn’t a problem for her anymore, but then summer comes. Summer is when Rebecca and her mother would usually spend a week together camping once school gets out. But this summer, it won’t be just Rebecca and her mother; it will be Rebecca, her mom, and Tom. This might be enough to trigger Rebecca to not accept the situation again; she might find herself back in the “it’s not fair” stage, fighting reality and experiencing a lot of suffering again. It’s important to know that this is normal, and it’s part of the process; you’re not starting back at square one when it happens. You’ve gotten to acceptance once, and it will be a bit easier this time, but you do have to go back to the steps of accepting reality and put some extra energy into practicing this again.
These additional DBT techniques may help you get to acceptance:
Taking An Open Posture
When you’re fighting something, you tend to take a closed stance fists clenched, arms crossed. Taking an open posture can help you get to acceptance: uncross your arms, unclench your fists. Try to relax your muscles (do some progressive muscle relaxation if you need to and if you can). Open yourself back up.
Breathing can further help you open up. Take some deep breaths; focus on your breathing. It can also help if you do a mindfulness practice such as counting your breaths (focusing on your breath mindfully, and counting each inhalation and exhalation from one to ten, over and over), in order to distract yourself momentarily from thoughts that fight reality.
The Half Smile
Turn the corners of your mouth up slightly so that you’re almost, but not quite, smiling. Think Mona Lisa—a very slight smile. You might be thinking this sounds totally weird, but it really can help. There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile is the source of your joy.” It’s a basic biological fact that the expression on your face can actually influence how you feel. I’m not saying “grin and bear it,” or “fake it till you make it”—this isn’t about pretending to be happy. Rather, it’s that by putting on a slight smile, you send messages to your brain that increase your sense of well-being. Try it; you might be surprised.
Applying Reality Acceptance to Your Relationships
Accepting reality will reduce your suffering, which in turn will make it easier for you to access your wise self and make healthier choices. Obviously this will be of benefit to your friendships and your interactions with others. Let’s take a look at specific ways that accepting reality can be of benefit in your interactions with others.
Accepting When You’ve Made a Mistake
Unfortunately, making mistakes is part of being human. We all make mistakes sometimes. Sometimes we lie, or we say hurtful things to the people we care about, or we do things that cause others to lose respect for us. It’s just part of life, but owning up to it and admitting you’ve made a mistake can be really difficult. Often the tendency is to deny it and dig the hole even deeper, or to make excuses for yourself. But making excuses usually makes things worse, often triggering anger in the people who care about you and causing the situation to drag on.
The best thing to do when you’ve made a mistake is to accept it—and admit it to whomever needs to hear it—and then move on. So practice acceptance: I made a mistake. I regret what I did, but I can’t go back and change it. Instead, I’ll apologize (or make repairs in another way) and move on.
The other important part here, of course, is that you learn from your mistakes and don’t continue to engage in the same behaviors. People might accept your apology once, but if you apologize and then keep engaging in the hurtful behavior, they’ll stop cutting you slack, and you’ll find your relationships ending. It’s also important that you don’t continue to beat yourself up for the mistake you’ve made (think back to self-judgments!)—accept it, repair it, and then move on from it.
What if your apology isn’t accepted? Well, you can’t make someone accept an apology; you need to focus on doing what you can do as effectively as possible, and hoping for the best. If you said something hurtful to someone, apologize in a genuine way and don’t say that hurtful thing again. Hopefully that person will see that you really mean it, he’ll realize everyone screws up sometimes, and he’ll give you a second chance. If he doesn’t, you need to accept his decision and move on. The good thing is that, as long as it’s clear you’ve learned from your mistake and are sincere in your remorse, people often will give you another chance.
Of course, having an apology rejected is never pleasant. You’ll feel some emotional pain— perhaps guilt and shame, anxiety over losing the relationship, and anger and disappointment in yourself. But at least you’ll know you’ve done your best by taking responsibility and trying to fix things, rather than compounding the problem by making excuses, blaming others, becoming defensive, or running away.
It can also help in these situations if you think about this question: If the person that you hurt were writing in your yearbook, what do you think he would say? And what would you want him to say? Would it be “He was cruel and didn’t care too much about others,” or would it be “He sometimes made mistakes but he took responsibility for them and tried to be a better person”?
Accepting the Choices of Others
It’s usually harder to accept those situations over which you have little or no control, but the bottom line is that you can’t control other people. You have every right to express an opinion—and the other person has every right to disregard it! At the end of the day, everyone is his own person and will make the decisions he thinks are in his own best interest. When you don’t like those decisions, you need to work on accepting them anyway; otherwise, you will experience a lot of emotional suffering as you continue to fight reality.
Your refusal to accept the decisions of another person will, of course, also lead to problems in your relationship with that person. When you’re fighting reality, remember that you’re judging—and we all know how it feels to be judged. If you judge that person often enough, you’ll push him right out of your life. Reverse roles for a moment when you find yourself in such a situation: how would you feel if this person were judging you? Probably not very good, right? Most people don’t like others in their lives trying to tell them what to do; usually people like to make their own decisions. So remember: express your opinion, and practice acceptance if your opinion isn’t acted on. It doesn’t mean the other person doesn’t value your opinion—it just means that he’s making his own decision, from his own perspective.
Your Next Steps
In this post you’ve learned yet another new skill—reality acceptance. Hopefully it makes sense to you how practicing this skill will help reduce the amount of emotional pain in your life; and that, by reducing your suffering, you’ll be able to be more effective in all areas of your life, including your relationships. Remember, the less emotional pain you have to contend with on a daily basis, the easier things become. When you’re regularly experiencing a lot of emotional pain, it’s much more difficult to access your wisdom and to make wise choices; instead, you end up acting from your emotional self a lot, which can lead to actions you regret later on.
So your practice for the coming days is reality acceptance. Start by thinking about the situations in your life that you need to use this skill with: What aren’t you accepting? What situations in your life do you fight? What continues to have a lot of power over you, so that you think about the situation frequently and experience a lot of emotional suffering every time you do? Once you’ve identified some situations, see if you can identify one that is perhaps a bit less painful than the others; it can be a little easier if you start practicing reality acceptance with a situation that isn’t incredibly painful. This will give you some experience with the skill, as well as proof that you can do it and that it does help. Once you become more accepting of this first situation, you can move on to others; but be patient with yourself—remember, reality acceptance is a really hard skill! Also remember, if you put in the work and energy, it will get a little easier as you go.