What to Do With Problems You Can't Fix
A few years ago, I was on the standby list trying to catch a flight home from Las Vegas to Chicago. My chances didn’t look good, so I decided to go through San Francisco, hoping for a few more options. It was a LONG day. I’d missed several flights, but finally my name was called and I got on a plane bound for O’Hare. When you fly standby, you never completely relax until the door is closed and the plane leaves the ground. As we sailed above the clouds and neared the Rocky Mountains, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. I’d be home soon.
Then, the unimaginable happened. The pilot told us over the intercom that WE WOULD BE TURNING AROUND. I can’t remember what the situation was in Chicago, probably weather, but we were simply turning around and going back to San Francisco. As the plane circled west, the stages of grief fast-tracked their way through my psyche. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression (that one actually settled in for a while). I wanted to scream and yell and talk to the manager. But there was nothing to be done. I had absolutely ZERO control over this situation.
Acceptance didn’t show its face until late that night when I finally resigned myself to finding a hotel room near the airport and trying for the first flight Monday morning. It wasn’t ideal, but no amount of screaming or yelling or fighting the reality of my plight was going to change it.
I imagine we have all felt very similarly in the past few weeks. Every day the news brings us fresh data and dismal reports of physical and economic turmoil. We are trapped on a plane headed for an unknown destination with an unknown landing date.
We humans are used to fixing things. We are very good at combining our creative thinking with the right Google searches and hard work and persistence and coming up with solutions to all the problems that ail us. (And if we can’t solve them, we are also experts at denying them or numbing them with all kinds of stuff and substances.)
But what about the unfixable problems? What about the ones over which we have no control? Despite our best efforts, some problems simply can’t be fixed (at least not in the time or the way we would like them to) and numbing or denying them just creates a host of other problems.
We do have another option.
It is called radical acceptance. Psychologist and author Marsha Linehan is most widely credited to developing our understanding of this concept, which refers to the ability to accept the current situation as it is.* Radical acceptance says, “It is what it is. I didn’t choose it, I don’t want it and I don’t agree with it, but it’s happening, and I need to somehow figure out how to make the best of it.”
When we practice radical acceptance, we look for ways to co-exist with unpleasant or unwanted circumstances. Although we can’t necessarily change the situation, we can find ways to bear the pain. Often this comes in looking for meaning or purpose or new opportunities in the midst of terrible circumstances. There are so many bright spots in this dark pandemic and quarantine.
Here are a few I’ve noticed recently:
High school and college students offering free delivery services in their communities
Countless seamstresses who are making and donating masks for worthy causes
Late-night talk show hosts creating “at home” versions of their shows
Beloved sitcom stars hosting virtual proms for high school students
Ordinary people, athletes and celebrities are stepping up to give what they can during this dark time. People are finding creative ways to enjoy family time, connect with others, start new businesses and pass time wisely.
Radical acceptance doesn’t make the pain go away, but it can make it more bearable. It also serves as a protective factor. If we are busy doing things to radically accept our circumstances, we have less time to feel anxious and depressed. Radical acceptance increases our ability to be resilient in the face of difficulty and helps us weather the storm with less damage.
No matter what happens in the days and weeks to come, know that we will get through this. This crisis will end. In the meantime, we want to help you in any way we can. We are available for video sessions and most insurances are covering them, even if you don’t normally have teletherapy benefits. You can reach us by phone at 317-743-8202 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also stay connected with us on social media: Facebook, Instagram - @generationsindy and Pinterest.
Until next time,
Joanna *Radical acceptance is a core principle of a therapy we use at Generations called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT. Dr. Linehan created this therapy to help people better manage their emotions, moods and behaviors. For more about DBT, click here. Photo by Eduardo Velazco Guart on Unsplash Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash