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Do you want to live a meaningful life? Then you need to master the art of acceptance. When you practice acceptance, it means that you’re respecting the process and your current place in life.

There are only a few skills in life as important as the skill of acceptance. Whether it comes to your mental health, the quality of your relationships, your physical fitness, your career success, or your expertise in playing any instrument on the planet… all of it (and much more) depends on your ability to feel uncomfortable while doing the things that matter.

If you wish to feel strong and healthy, you have to eat your greens – even though you might rather want to try out that new burger place. If you want a loving relationship with your spouse, you have to focus on being kind and attentive – especially when you would rather just want to scream and shout.

Simply said, acceptance is the ability to feel the full range of your thoughts and emotions without needless avoidance or clinging in the service of what matters the most to you.

The Bittersweet Art Of Acceptance
The Bittersweet Art Of Acceptance

This is often easier said than done. But just like any other skill, you can get better at it with practice. Think of it like exercise. As a part of your workout, you might practice stretching – not because life regularly asks you to touch your toes, but because it might ask you to pick up the newspaper from the driveway, or pull that clump of dog hair off the carpet.

Similarly, you might practice movements while standing on a balancing board – not because life itself regularly asks you to do movements while standing atop an unstable base, but because it might ask you to reach the top shelf on your tippy toes, or to walk across an icy parking lot without falling down and hurting yourself.

During your workout, you practice movements that don’t really matter in that specific moment. However, by practicing these movements when they don’t matter, you will have them in your skill-set when they DO matter.

In precisely the same way, it helps to practice acceptance when it doesn’t matter, so you have the skill when it DOES matter. In other words, you want to work on acceptance when you are NOT particularly sad, anxious, lonely, ashamed, angry, or stressed, so you can apply the skill when you DO feel any or all of those things.

Related: What Is Contentment and Why Is It Essential For Happiness? 5 Benefits

Art of Acceptance: Deliberately practice acceptance in small emotional stretches.

Let me give you an example from my own life.

I’ve just turned 73, and my youngest son is about to turn 16. I have three other children, from almost 52 to just-turned 33, so I know what 16 means. It means driving instead of being driven, dramatically reducing the time we can talk to each other with nothing else to do.

And it means his friends will be vastly more a focus than his Mom and Dad, and we will be less and less cool. He chuckled a bit at me last night as we watched my beloved football team, the Nevada Wolfpack, and I talked about a Nevada player who narrowly avoided being a goat for dropping two critical passes earlier in the game by redeeming himself with a good catch in a critical drive. “Goat?” he snorted. “Goat,” it turns out, is young people’s sports talk for Greatest Of All Time – Who knew? Tom Brady is the goat!.

16 means leaving home and growing up. It means separation and individuation. It’s long been underway — but now it got real.

There is such a bittersweet mix of emotions in watching as my last child approaches adulthood. But how can I accept these feelings?

One thing I’ve done deliberately in the last week, I’ve listened to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” about 15 times. The song was written as he was leaving his teenage years and realizing that his childhood was behind him now. The lyrics speak of the bittersweet thought that you are leaving too soon.

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Dr. Steven C. Hayes

Steven C. Hayes is Nevada Foundation Professor in the Behavior Analysis program at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. An author of 44 books and nearly 600 scientific articles, his career has focused on an analysis of the nature of human language and cognition and the application of this to the understanding and alleviation of human suffering. He is the developer of Relational Frame Theory, an account of human higher cognition, and has guided its extension to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a popular evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based methods.View Author posts