Step one of any twelve step programme gets addicts to admit they are powerless over their substance of choice. ‘We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction; that our lives had become unmanageable.’ With this admission comes an acceptance of their condition. Addicts give up the fight and surrender to the fact that they are completely powerless over their substance. Painful as it may be at that time, addicts must accept that their relationship with drugs or alcohol is over.
In the early stages of recovery, acceptance plays a huge part in the addict’s life. They must accept their powerlessness. They must accept the hurt and pain they have caused to family, friends, work colleagues, lovers, and themselves. They must accept the damage caused to their physical and mental health, not to mention the health of those closest to them. Addicts must accept that they can never use or drink again and they must accept that they have to now face a life without the crutch of their substance of choice. For the addict new to recovery, there is a lot of accepting to do.
Acceptance takes more forms than just accepting the big things like a life of sobriety. Just as important to the person in recovery is the acceptance of the little things in life: the things that get our goats up; the daily nuisances and hinderances, the little niggles and unwanted surprises. The things that if not checked properly could be the starting point to relapse. If addicts are going to be successful in their recovery they need to learn how to accept the little things as they are rather than as they ‘should’ be.
Imagine the bus you are waiting for is late, which has made you late for a job interview. Ask yourself honestly, what would you do? Would you stay calm and contact the people at the job interview letting them know that you are going to be late. Or, would you pace back and forth, glaring at your watch, cursing, sweating, and growing more angry by the minute getting more and more wound up by what ‘should’ be happening rather than what is actually happening.
Picture that scene for a moment.
Getting angry at something that is out of your control.
If you think about it what you are doing is arguing with reality. And no amount of swearing, grinding of teeth, or punching your fist is going to make the bus arrive any quicker. This all sounds simplistic, but many people fail to accept the little day to day nuisances and inconveniences which over time can lead to a build up of anger that can lead to fights, arrests, relationship break ups, job losses, and in the case of recovering addicts: relapse.
Our lives are full of nuisances: Parking tickets, traffic jams, shopping queues, unexpected tax bills, forgotten birthdays, lost phones, lost keys, or lost wallets, washing bag explosions, flat tyres, being put on hold, heavy rain the moment we hang out our washing, spilled coffee, road rage… The list goes on and on and on just like someone who talks a lot; which is another popular cause for frustration. ‘She really should shut the [email protected] up!’
Mindfulness practice and eastern philosophies such as Buddhism tells us that whatever situation you find yourself in, good or bad, you must accept it just as it is, almost as if you chose to be in that situation for yourself. The situation that you find yourself in is reality. The ‘should’ reality is what you think should be happening. In between these realities lurks all the negative emotions that keep people locked in addictive cycles.
Acceptance does not mean rolling over and just accepting bad things happening to us. And it does not mean letting people walk over us. Acceptance means weighing up the situation in a mindful and present manner and making an informed decision as to your next course of action with full attention, rather than have your ‘should’ thoughts capture your attention and lead you into a full blown rage that takes you who knows where.
Spending too much time in the ‘should’ reality can lead to increased anger, anxiety, depression, frustration, hate, jealousy, and many other negative emotions that will act as a one-way train to relapse central. They may not immediately set you on that path, but too many ‘shoulds’ over a period of time could put you on a path of self-destruction.
So what can we do?
Learning acceptance is not something that is done overnight. It takes time, and practice, and possibly a few failures. But like any muscle in the body, with the right work it can be strengthened. But you need to first accept that acceptance is not something that you just get. It’s work. It really is work. It takes effort and patience, and a stedfast refusal to give into negative emotions such as anger, hate, or jealousy.
The next time you find yourself thinking ‘should’ thoughts, try instead to sit down and focus on your breathing. Bring yourself back to the present moment by concentrating on the breath coming in and out of your body. Breathing is your ticket out of your negative thoughts back to the present moment. It will take patience as you will keep slipping back into the ‘should’ thoughts, but with practice it will become easier.
Another way to get out of your head is to take in your surroundings. Use your senses fully. Touch, smell, listen, or look at something, really examine it as if it was the first time you had seen such a thing. By doing so you are taking your attention off the ‘should’ thoughts which will work to calm you down. If you can, look at something nice and interesting, but if all you have is a bus timetable then thats what you have to go with. The object itself is not important. What is important is what that object does. Think of a person trapped in quicksand. Does it matter what object is thrown to them? Or is it what that object does which is pull the person out of the quicksand.
The practice of acceptance is not easy and it will not happen overnight. But ask yourself what are your options? Practice acceptance or get mad every time something does not go your way? Accepting the little daily nuisances will keep us calmer and more relaxed and better able to enjoy the world rather than be annoyed by every little nuisance.
Acceptance of things ‘as they are,’ and not as they ‘should’ be is a way to a happier life.