Every one of us encounters difficult life situations every day. Mental health starts with having better coping skills for general life events and not waiting for things to get worse in depression or anxiety disorders. Cognitive Behavioural strategies work best when they are integrated into our daily lives and shift our approach to our own thinking. Similarly, ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) based skills are not meant to be applied just to symptoms, but as ways to change how we relate to not only ourselves, but to life. In this short blog I want to share a powerful concept that can be universally considered in anything from our smallest daily problems – such as running out of coffee in the morning – or the largest crises in life, like mental illness, loss or trauma.
In every situation in life that we don’t like, it seems that there are always four general choices that we can make. I believe that Eckhart Tolle had an idea about this originally, but I think that he missed something – saying that we only have three choices. I owe this idea to him and I’m pretty sure this is really just expands it. Feel free to tell me whether or not you think I am missing something on this because I have yet to find an exception.
Here are the four options. I’ll list them first before explaining a bit in an example. So, in every situation in life that we don’t like, we can either:
- Leave it
- Change it
- Resist it
- Accept it
How does this apply? Let’s use a real example from my own life. In this situation, I encountered repairs that have to be done on my car that were a very unpleasant surprise for me. I suggest you think of a challenge in your own life and see how this fits into this. In my situation, the first option is to …
How would that look? Well in this case it would mean abandoning the car. That would be like finding a hole in your shoes and then throwing them out. Or disliking how your partner chews gum so dumping them. Or not liking the weather so you move. Even with internally located problems such as moods or feelings, this option exists – though it is a horrible one (the option to actually leave life). In fact, this is rarely the best option. But sometimes it is the best. If someone comes at you with a knife, the totally best thing to do is to leave! Very quickly!
I’m certainly not going to just throw out my car. But perhaps, if it was an old junker not worthy of the repair, it could be realistic. At any rate, my lovely little Subaru is staying with me so option number one is very quickly out the window. What would leaving look like in your challenge? That leads us to option number two….
In my situation, that could be a couple things. Most obviously, I could tell the garage that I am going to go to another mechanic, hopefully for a cheaper cost. So I got some other estimates. Or, if I’m a DIY type of guy (and I can assure you that with cars, I certainly am not) then I could perhaps try to figure out the work by myself. I replaced an air intake tube on my old Honda when I was about 18 years old and I’ll tell you that to this day I’m proud of myself, and to this day I feel zero need to do any other mechanical work on my car besides the work of driving it to the garage. At any rate, I don’t like the fact that my current car needs repairs so I can try to change the situation somehow. Maybe there is a way around it? Maybe I can find used parts? Maybe it is covered under warranty? I can do my research and do what I can. In this case, it still needs a steering column thingy for it to drive safely. But we can often get very stuck in this option – have you, or do you know anyone that has been trying to change their boyfriend or partner or wife or friend or mother to no avail for a long time? Have you been trying every strategy in the books to make yourself less sad or anxious? Have you been trying to make yourself, your room, or your job environment look different so that the challenge will go away?
The tricky part of this option is that we can get stuck in it – looking for a solution but never finding a good one. Because sometimes changing our problems can work very well, we often believe we must be able to find a way to change things. When we can’t we often get stuck for days, weeks, even decades. When we get stuck, it might mean that we have inadvertently chosen option number three….
This is not something that we do consciously. And that’s the problem. When we are in a situation where leaving is not a good option, and changing it either isn’t working or cannot work, we often get rooted in a place of resistance. This is the all too well known place of: I don’t like this so I’m going to be miserable about it. It is a place of fighting with reality – a fight that Byron Katie reminds us that we lose only 100% of the time. This is a state marked by internal grumbling, lots of thoughts about how things should be different, and generally – suffering. And boy, we can really get trapped.
In my situation, this might look like me calling a friend and complaining about how expensive my car repair is. And it may (and often does) generalize to other perceptions about my world. I might start to think that life sucks, that it is unfair, that I have done something wrong, or am something wrong to deserve this, etc. You can imagine your own thoughts and feelings of resistance. In global and cosmological matters, we actually carry this around like undercurrents of unhappiness for our entire lives. It is a little crazy, but we are all like this. I suspect that we are a bit wired like this, in that we may unconsciously feel that if we simply suffer enough, the gods of our world will come save us. This is simply a carry-over from pre-verbal ways that our brain is wired. When we are infants, our crying brings relief. And our suffering ends up getting neurologically bound to the parental, divine (and deus ex machina-like) appeasement. That’s a bit of a set up for psychological pain in life. Because things are just not going to go the way that you want them to, and sometimes there is nothing you can do about it.
Do you hate Trump? Do you think the huge insurance company you work for is unfair? Do you think that cars are a necessary evil? Go ahead and do something about it. But when you hit the end of your own power, what does your suffering really do but add misery to the world? Can you find a way to be empowered, to work positively in the world, without that? It is more than possible. I think it is ultimately necessary.
For some reason, after we have exhausted options one and two, we have culturally not realized that number three is still optional. We have forgotten that there is an option number four…
This is not about disempowerment or ‘giving up’. Our modern culture seems to believe that acceptance of things we do not like is somehow synonymous with a failure. But upon inquiry it is far from it! It is, I would argue, a victory of sanity and intelligence. If I can’t change a situation, why is misery a victory, and peace a loss? That’s rubbish. In my situation with the car, I have chosen not to leave it, I have looked at options to change it which are not going to work, and so instead of being grumpy about it, I actually have the option to simply embrace the simple reality that my car needs expensive repairs – and to flow with it. It doesn’t mean I’m rolling over and letting life get the best of me. It means I am discerning what I can change from what I can’t, and not wasting my energy, time, or life, trying to fight with it. I often tell clients to consider how we feel about the weather. If we don’t like the rain, it is still not going to help if we get angry when it rains, and let it pull us into a bad mood. The wiser question is how can you truly embrace it? The serenity prayer that is so often quoted in 12-step groups is really relevant here:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
But I think we can leave God out of this one. YOU can give yourself this power. And when you do so, you might notice how much more energy and clarity you now have to do something that really does matter to you. This wisdom is ancient. It is embedded in the concepts of Taoism and Buddhism, where we can flow like water over difficulties. It might even be what is being referred to when we are told to “resist not evil”. And as Gandhi showed the world, non-resistance does not mean non-action.
To accept a difficult situation means only that you are opening a space for it to be there. You may continue to work to change, but you don’t fight against the pieces that won’t move. I don’t like the fact that my car is in the shop right now. But I can deal with it. It is not going to break my wallet or ruin my day. Can you make space for the qualities you don’t like about your partner, your parent, the world? Can you let it rain and find a way to celebrate the fact you had to cancel your walk in the park?
In psychotherapy, we also take this concept deeper – and we can see that sometimes emotions or thoughts are in the domain of things we cannot change. Anger appears without my invitation. Ugly thoughts show up that I would never script for myself. Moods arise. I can’t leave or change them sometimes. But I can accept them fully, and when I do so, they stop consuming my energy in my fight with them, and thereby they have much less influence and power in my life.
This leaves us with more space and energy to do what matters, instead of being almost enslaved by the objects of our own resistance.
I don’t have a car to drive today. On one hand, that is not ideal. But now that I have noticed, it is a beautiful day for a walk.
If you want to read more about the power of non-resistance, check out my other blog post about ACT and Acceptance)