“The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” ~Tara Brach
I was in the heart of my Ph.D. program when I received the diagnoses: OCD, depression, and binge eating disorder.
It explained a lot, of course. All those years of anxiety, self-doubt, and intrusive thoughts were not normal after all. Eating to the point of gaining forty pounds in a few months was foreign to most people.
I wanted an explanation. Why me?
I had done everything right: I made a decent living, I was kind to everyone, and I was presenting my scientific research at international conferences. Why was I being punished?
I turned to my past and looked for an explanation—something I could pin the blame on. Was it my parents? Had years of moving from place to place as a military child scarred me?
What about my peers? Those uncomfortable years of being teased and bullied for my grades and general good-girl behavior must have led to this.
Perhaps I was to blame? Had I overachieved my way to a mental health breakdown? Had I failed myself?
Those first few months of therapy were the most difficult. I was forced to face all these questions and more, digging into my past and present with both fervor and hesitation. What if I didn’t like the person I found underneath all these layers of expectations?
As I stripped away the beliefs I held about myself, I watched as my worst fears came to life. It appeared that I was to blame after all. I had allowed myself to take on everyone else’s feelings about me and make them my own.
My self-identity was a conglomeration of things I had been told over the years. I was smart, I was capable, I was good, I was bossy, I was sweet, I was stubborn, and I was so many other adjectives.
There was nothing inherently wrong with these descriptors, particularly the positive traits, but I didn’t necessarily relate to all of them.
My family saw me as “a sweet girl,” when I felt more tart than saccharine.
People told me I was book smart, when I knew that I was a good mix of both academic intelligence and common sense.
Some who were uncomfortable with women in power called me bossy, when really I was assertive.
I had brought this breakdown on myself, I thought. How could I have let others define who I would become? Why was I so weak?
It was around this time that one of my therapists introduced me to the idea of radical acceptance.
It’s a concept based in Buddhist philosophy that is used by psychologists to help their clients heal and accept challenges in their lives.
Rather than encouraging us to decide whether something is good or bad, as we often do automatically, radical acceptance encourages us to simply accept that things are.
We have a tendency to apply labels to things. In my story, I had been labeled as smart, an overachiever, a worrywart, and other things. In turn, I labeled my newfound mental health situation as a misfortune, a major obstacle, a life changer, and other (mostly negative) things.
Imagine how much more freeing it would be to live a life apart from labels! The key to this mindset, of course, is to realize that your feelings about an event do not change the event itself.
Let’s say you got into a car accident. You may feel angry, hurt, frustrated, and many other emotions. Those are all valid feelings, and you have a right to experience them.
But your anger won’t undo the accident. The accident happened. The accident is.
Let’s take this one step further, however.
After the accident you become angry that you have become frustrated. How could you allow yourself to get worked up over something that you can no longer control?
You can also attempt to radically accept your feelings.
Your emotional reactions are natural, and it’s counterintuitive to get worked up over what you “should” be feeling. What you are feeling is neither a bad nor a good thing, it simply is.
What situations might you apply radical acceptance to in your daily life?
- You wake up later than you planned to.
- Your cat throws up on your new rug.
- You fail a test that you prepared for extensively.
- Your partner overdrew the checking account.
- You didn’t get the raise you were expecting at work.
Imagine accepting each of these events as something outside your control and training yourself to not get worked up over unexpected circumstances.
This is not an easy task, and it will take time to incorporate the practice into your daily life. Be gentle to yourself.
I dropped out of my Ph.D. program after my first year of therapy. My journey into my brain showed me that I was heading down a path that others had set for me, one that I had not bothered to ask myself about.
This major change in my life was labeled by others. To outsiders, I was a quitter, I couldn’t handle the pressure of academia, and I was not living up to my potential.
But for me, this was simply a change. It was neither good nor bad, it was merely different.
Since my mental health breakdown, I’ve experienced a lot of changes, both in my life and in my career. Some of them have been good changes, and some of them have been bad.
But I don’t allow myself to fall into that black-and-white thinking as easily anymore.
I have learned to own my story and my circumstances, and I love myself more because of it.
Change can be good; change can be bad. But, most often, change simply is.
Peaceful woman image via Shutterstock