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  • Writer's pictureKatie Dunnigan

Acceptance Therapy - Learning Through Our Suffering

Updated: Jan 5

“Some higher or wider interest arose on the person’s horizon, and through this widening of his view the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms, but faded out when confronted with a new and stronger life tendency.” -Carl Jung

What am I meant to learn from this? This is a question I ask myself regularly as my life unfolds. It has more to do with the art of asking the question than it does with coming up with an answer. The truth is that the answer comes spontaneously through awareness. It is that deep sense of knowing that I have spoken about in my other blog posts.

Life presents us with all sorts of suffering, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It is the reason people come to see me in my practice: they are longing to heal. But it often isn’t enough to talk through our issues or feel validated in our experiences. Mindfulness and transpersonal psychology are a form of true acceptance therapy because they allow us to learn from life in transformative way. They offer the opportunity to explore a type of awareness that helps us heal from the inside-out. So, people commonly ask me, “How do I move into a state of true acceptance?”

What is Acceptance?

First, let me be clear: Acceptance isn’t about liking a situation or being happy that it happened to us. My late psychotherapist and spiritual mentor, Viola Fodor, described true acceptance as coming to “a greater philosophical understanding of what has happened so that we are free to move on unscarred.” When I first heard this definition, I was surprised. In the therapy world people often speak of managing pain, but never true healing. But like anything else with awareness work, I would learn that this shift in perception has to occur on a deeper level. It isn’t enough to use willpower to change the way we are thinking about something. This isn’t about positive thinking or forced optimism or intellectual theories. We are talking about introspection here. With awareness, the wider perspective that Carl Jung talks about in the quote above seems to emerge. It is as if a new life philosophy develops and provides us with ongoing guidance. This philosophy is connected to our intuition, which makes it feel trustworthy and calming.

Acceptance Therapy - How Do We Learn From Life?

So how do we find the learning? In acceptance therapy, we simply learn to ask the question and then we spend time observing ourselves. We see our automatic responses to the situation and we get honest about how familiar it is to us. We notice, non-judgmentally, how we keep repeating similar patterns over and over. We pause to slow down and see if there might be a wiser way to respond. If we have already reacted to a situation, we go back to it in our minds as a form of self-reflection. We spend time in silence to process our emotions and then we ask the question again…

What am I meant to learn from this?

Here are some common lessons we learn from our pain:

• How to be patient

• How to be honest

• How to live with integrity

• How to offer compassion

• How to forgive

• How to love unconditionally

• How to be resilient

• How to be courageous

• How to slow down

• How to let go of control

• How to accept and work with the present moment

• How to stay true to ourselves

• How to take care of ourselves

• How to take responsibility for our lives

• How to trust our intuition

• How to have faith in something bigger than ourselves

Here is an example from my own life where I had to learn a lesson retrospectively:

When my daughter was almost two years old, she suddenly developed raw, itchy rashes all over her body. This went on for months and I was distraught. I had just started recovering from my own lengthy health battle and now life had thrown me another one to deal with (cue victim response: “how can this be happening to me?!”). Her skin seemed to get worse each day and I couldn’t figure out what was triggering the reaction. I reached out to other moms who had all sorts of advice (cue desperate search for external answers: “I’ll try anything, just tell me what to do!”), and professionals who had their own strong but conflicting opinions (cue anger around feeling invalidated: “nobody is listening to me!”). It seemed like a never-ending rabbit hole and nothing was helping, despite my best efforts. While I usually rely on my Self to guide me, this situation really caught me off-guard as a new mom. I was aware of my thoughts but I wasn’t slowing down or sitting with my emotions to process them, so I continued to spin out.

At the end of the day, we figured out that my daughter not only has severe eczema (cue fear: “she’s going to suffer her whole life with this!”), but is also very allergic to dust (cue frustration: “now I have to clean constantly?!”). This was likely going to be a long-term condition that would require ongoing management, and if I didn’t pause and begin to accept what was happening, I would continue to suffer in my mind. The truth is, I didn’t figure out the answer to my daughter’s skin issues through my frantic efforts, self-pity, or fear. I discovered it by observing her….it was only a matter of time before it became clear to me what she was reacting to. So, what was the learning in all of this? The learning isn’t to not seek external help, because sometimes we do need support. The problem was that I wasn’t using my intuition. I was jumping to solutions because I wanted immediate control over the situation and I couldn’t bear the uncertainty. I was also bringing a negative energy to the situation which was creating a whole new layer of suffering. One of my previous blog posts on surrender vs. action helps differentiate when we need to be doing something and when we need to let go mentally (or both).

So what do I deeply know as a result of this situation? I know that my daughter will face her own challenges in life and that I cannot protect her from her own pain. I know that a lot of my life suffering comes in the form of health issues and that it is my responsibility to keep looking at my patterns and staying on my own side when these challenges arise. I know that I have to continue to surrender to the present moment and accept and work with what I am given. And I know that even if I don’t have the answers as to why something is happening, I can trust that everything is unfolding in a way that will allow me to grow. This situation has taught me patience, compassion, and letting go. Even though I didn’t handle things perfectly, I don’t have any sense of regret or shame because I recognize the lesson I was meant to learn through the experience. My perspective has shifted and my awareness knows that there is no need to dwell on the past by steeping in judgement. Regret is really just the mind’s way of trying to control things, even though it doesn’t work. Through self-reflection and learning, I can trust that the next time a similar issue arises in my life (which it already has and will continue to), I can face it in a new way. This is how we evolve as humans and spiritual beings.

When we learn through our life experiences, our consciousness shifts and we see things differently. We become capable of letting go of negativity and defences because they no longer serve a purpose. We come to appreciate the learning, even if we would never have asked for the lesson. This moves us into a state of true acceptance. We can also experience what Carl Jung called synchronicity. This can be defined as a meaningful coincidence, which is a change in the way we perceive the unfolding of events in our life. It helps us reconcile the parts of our experiences that we don’t have control over (like an illness), and what we do (like a lesson we learn). It is as if life presents us with situations when we are ready to learn. Things start to make sense on a deeper level and can we move into that place of acceptance that we are all longing for.

Mindful Awareness Practice:

Take some time in silence to think about a difficult situation from your past (note: it is best to choose something that felt difficult but not overwhelming. Do not start this process with your most traumatic experiences). See if you can, for a moment, let go of your thoughts and beliefs about what or who caused the situation. Instead, pay attention to what your reaction was to the scenario, either externally as behaviour or internally as thoughts. Notice what was really going on inside of you at that time. How did you handle things? Now do your best to get still inside and ask the question: “What was I meant to learn from this?” Remember that this is not about blaming ourselves. If blame arises, just notice that it is because there is a judgment present in your mind. See if you can let go of the judgement, and come back to the question again. If nothing comes to you, that is okay. Let it go for a bit and come back to the question again later. Insight often arises spontaneously as we are going about our day. The more important part is that you are getting familiar with the art of introspection.

This post was written by Katie Dunnigan. She is a therapist in Burlington, Ontario offering online mindfulness therapy, transpersonal therapy, and humanistic therapy. She believes in healing from the inside-out from eating disorders, depression, anxiety, anger, trauma, stress, and more.

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