"Acceptance is an act of stepping closer to truth and not resisting its message and direction."
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Episode 76 -- January 4, 2021New Year, New Start: Resistance, Acceptance, and Self-Knowledge
In Finding Your Moral Compass: Transformative Principles to Guide You in Recovery and Life, author and recovery counselor Craig Nakken offers tools we can use to both discover our options and make moral choices. While right and wrong are sometimes clearly defined, much of the time we must wrestle with different perspectives and pressures in order to do the next right thing. We live day-to-day in the tension between opposing impulses or poles, which the author calls Spiritual Principles. In this excerpt, Nakken explores the tension between resistance and acceptance—especially when it comes to questions about who we are and who we want to be as we heal and grow.
It has been edited for brevity.
We often resist spiritual growth—or change of any type—even when we know it is best for us. Because we have an instinctual need for security (think of this as our reptilian brain at work), we tend to interpret change as a threat—something to fear and defend against. But when we use our ability to think critically (our neocortex at work), we know better. When change supports connection, growth, or positive Spiritual Principles, our neocortex has the power to overrule our reptilian brain and move forward in spite of our fears and resistance.
As we've seen, any system works to preserve itself by staying in balance. If some force or tension in one part of the system increases or decreases, then other parts of the system shift to maintain that balance—the system's status quo. This is true of cultures, organizations, institutions, and our own individual minds and hearts. This is why we naturally feel some internal resistance, some tension or anxiety, whenever we are called to change. Our balance has shifted from what we are comfortable with or used to. This tension encourages us to resist or push back against any change—even a change that we might desire, value, or need. In this way, our internal systems initially resist all change.
This resistance is instinctual and happens unconsciously.
If we're not vigilant, this resistance—and the fear that accompanies it—can actually distort our critical thinking to come up with rationalizations and excuses that justify our refusal to change.
Changing a system—or even accepting change in ourselves, others, or the world—requires mindfulness, a conscious choice, and repeated positive actions. We need to be aware of our resistance and be willing to challenge it. We may also need to feel the fear behind our resistance without denying it, and then consciously choose to act according to our values.
Acceptance is both an ending and a beginning. It often generates renewed energy and a sense of freedom and peace. We are no longer bound by our habits, our fears, our old ideas, or our resistance; the energy that went into our defenses is now available to go into discovery and recovery.
The more we practice acceptance, the more we are able to live in—and work with—the present. We stop saying to ourselves, "If only things were different," and instead say, "What am I being called to do right now? How can I be part of the solution rather than the problem?" As Bill observed, "Once I finally accepted that good grades came from study and hard work and not some mysterious natural ability, I was able to put down the video games and pick up the books. Did I like it? Not at first, but when I got my grades and they were all As, I was proud and glad that I had accepted what I needed to do to achieve my goal."
In part, acceptance involves saying yes to the world as it is, rather than how we want or hope it to be. But it also involves accepting ourselves as we are right now, with all our flaws, weaknesses, and limitations—and then being willing to change them, step by step, without falling into shame and self-blame.
Acceptance is an act of stepping closer to truth and not resisting its message and direction. As my client Edwin told me, "One of the best days of my life was when I finally accepted that I had a problem with expressing anger. At last I was able to stop resisting and signed up for an anger management class. Once I had been to a couple of sessions, I wondered what I had been so afraid of and resistant about. And soon I stopped expending so much energy on blaming, justifying, and making excuses. I started to change for the better, and it felt good."
Talma was a twenty-five-year-old Anishinabe woman whose name meant "crash of thunder." Her life lived up to her name. She was not just an alcoholic, but an angry alcoholic. If someone looked directly at her when she was drunk enough, she would charge them, screaming, with her fists flying. She had been repeatedly abused as a child, and both of her parents had died of alcoholism. Her entire childhood had been very difficult and painful. But now, Talma used her childhood as an excuse for resisting any change in how she acted.
Talma ended up in treatment for her alcoholism, and for the first three weeks she resisted and chased away everyone with her looks of rage and tone of disgust. After a while, everyone but her counselor left her alone.
After three weeks, her counselor told her, "Talma, we're recommending that you extend your stay, for it's clear that you haven't accepted your illness yet." Talma bellowed with fury and ran to her room.
Her room looked out onto a field, and standing in the field, staring at her, was a deer. Talma opened the sliding glass door and charged the deer, yelling at it, "What are you looking at?" The deer did not move. Only when she got about five feet from it did the deer turn and slowly walk away.
The next afternoon, Talma's aunt appeared at the treatment center with a package. Her aunt was a good, kind woman; she was one of the few people Talma had never yelled at. Her aunt sat her down and said, "I have something for you, and a request. I'm asking that you accept that you are Anishinabe."
Talma replied, "I do accept that. I know I'm Anishinabe. I feel it in my body and my heart."
Her aunt shook her head. "No, you're an angry alcoholic woman who lives in her wounds instead of in the community of those who love you." She handed Talma the package and said, "Last night in my dream a deer came to me and told me to bring you this."
Talma opened the package. Inside was a dancing dress.
"This was your grandmother's dancing dress," her aunt said. "She wanted your mother to have it, but her drinking killed her before she could dance. It's yours now; the deer wants you to accept that you are Anishinabe. We don't drink—we dance. Stay at this treatment center. Listen to their words. Work on your dress; make it your own. When the pain of your past comes, put on the dress and dance. Accept what and who you are. Then come home to us when you're done here." She stood up. "Either do that or burn the dress and live in your pain. I love you. Now let's go have supper."
That night it stormed, the thunder was loud, and Talma danced.
Questions for contemplation:
- Is there some important task, challenge, or change that you have been resisting for some time? What are you afraid will happen if you stop resisting? What freedom, relief, or other positive results might occur if you stop resisting?
- We usually think in terms of solving problems by rolling up our sleeves and fixing them, but some problems are best solved by simply accepting how things are. Can you recall a situation in your life where things improved not because you fixed them, but because you accepted them? How did you feel when you finally came to that acceptance? How did other people respond as a result of your acceptance?
- As of right now, where do you place yourself on the continuum from resistance to acceptance?
About the Author:
Craig Nakken, M.S.W. a certified chemical dependency practitioner, is a lecturer at the Rutgers School of Alcohol Studies and the Florida School of Addictions. A worker in the field of addictions for more than 25 years, Nakken has a private practice in St. Paul, Minnesota and lectures nationally and internationally on topics related to addiction studies
© 2011 by Craig Nakken
All rights reserved
The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is a force of healing and hope for individuals, families and communities affected by addiction to alcohol and other drugs. As the nation's leading nonprofit provider of comprehensive inpatient and outpatient treatment for adults and youth, the Foundation has 17 locations nationwide and collaborates with an expansive network throughout health care. With a legacy that began in 1949 and includes the 1982 founding of the Betty Ford Center, the Foundation today also encompasses a graduate school of addiction studies, a publishing division, an addiction research center, recovery advocacy and thought leadership, professional and medical education programs, school-based prevention resources and a specialized program for children who grow up in families with addiction.