In our everyday language, we often confuse “acceptance” with “letting-go”. For both terms, we understand that it is a question of not unnecessarily opposing the painful events that cross our path. The underlying hypothesis is that unnecessary suffering stems from a desire to control at all costs and that it is sometimes preferable to let the events unfold without our intervention (by pushing this approach to the extreme, we sometimes get to “feel life”, as Tyler Durden puts it in Fight Club).
Whereas it seems as giving up of control – or “letting go”- when we look at it closely, acceptance is in fact the ultimate form of control, and by far the most difficult to achieve.
Indeed, when we feel afraid or angry for example, these emotions dictate how we should react. Fear tells us to avoid or flee; anger urges us to bite. These emotions push us to act automatically and quickly, to get us out of dangerous situations or to avoid getting into them. Or we may say, paradoxically, that these emotions push us to act so that they themselves cease as soon as possible. In reality, although it is often for our own good, when our reactions are dictated by our emotions, we lose control.
On the contrary, acceptance consists in controlling our reactions when we are facing difficult emotions, in resisting the impulses to act dictated by our emotions. We need to bear in mind that while emotions push us to act in a certain way, they don’t have an absolute power over our behavior. We all experience situations where we go in the opposite direction from that of what our emotions tell us. We choose to disobey the fear of medical examination or of public speaking. We hold back blows that our anger incites us to administer. We overcome disgust to heal the wounds of a loved one. There is a space between our emotions and the seemingly automatic reactions they trigger. That’s the space that we can slip into to take control before our emotions utterly take the reins. When faced with automatic reactions, products of natural selection, it is necessary to control ourselves so that we do not react as we are programmed to do. By doing this, we sometimes stay in contact with these painful emotions for longer, but they no longer control our life anymore, we control it again.
It is thus a question, and this is perhaps the most difficult to grasp , of regaining control in order to finally not react; that is to say, regaining control in order to do nothing. Apparently, doing nothing. Apparently “letting go”. But in reality, it’s about doing “nothing” vis-à-vis these emotions. What could be more difficult than doing “nothing” when the burning inside you is telling you to shake yourself up and make it stop? To do “nothing” in presence of these difficult emotions is to let them do whatever they want, but being at the same time very active in controlling our “natural” reactions to those emotions. Finally, it’s about shifting the search of control from the emotions – which are very little controllable, or at a very high price- to our reactions to these emotions, which are themselves very controlable, and often the source of our suffering.
Acceptance is about investing all one’s energy to control one’s reactions to emotions, sometimes in order to organize another reaction, which may be contrary to one that comes to us automatically. So we can then remain impassive while being terrified, even approach something that we are afraid of, embrace shame, cherish anger, let sadness take its place, and finally be free to do whatever is important to us.
Translated by Chelsea Davis-Laurin
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