Meet Life’s Challenges with Acceptance, Awareness, and Compassion

Ocean storm “But this revolutionary act of treating ourselves tenderly can begin to undo the aversive messages of a lifetime.” —Tara Brach

Pause for a moment to reflect on a situation that is challenging and causing you difficulty and pain. Can you bring awareness to your thoughts around this issue? How are these thoughts impacting your emotions? How is your body reacting to these thoughts and feelings?

Sometimes, when we face painful or difficult situations, our self-talk and the stories we tell ourselves can be toxic and full of judgment. This intensifies our pain and leads us to feel overwhelmed and out of touch with life. In losing our connection to the present moment, we may get swept up in an emotional storm that affects our ability to think and see things clearly. Lost in this storm, we lose our ability to help ourselves and instead react in ways that create more suffering and pain.

For example, suppose I’m facing financial stress and problems in an intimate relationship. As I begin focusing on these issues, I might start ruminating on how awful the situation is and chastising myself for not being good enough. Perhaps I’d criticize myself for picking the wrong partner or being financially irresponsible. As I go through the day I might feel tired, gloomy, and irritable. Throughout this whole process, I’m unaware of how my reaction to the situation is negatively affecting me. My inner world is reeling with negative thoughts, stories, and judgments, and this in turn affects my physical, emotional, and mental well-being. In order to shift out of this emotional storm, I need to recognize what I am doing that is creating suffering.

“When the mind is steady we can see a little truth. When the mind is disturbed we can’t see anything. Growth allows a portion of the mind to remain an objective witness even in the face of disturbance. This witness is always there, if one can keep a wakeful attitude.” —Swami Kripalu

Awareness is the first step toward helping ourselves shift from a reactive, stressful response to a healing and healthy one. In order to practice awareness, we must be willing to let go of judgment and be open to our inner experience. So rather than tightening up, shutting down, or lashing out, we begin to connect with what is happening in the present, and we meet reactivity with awareness, acceptance, and compassion.

How Do We Initiate This Shift?

Triggers are things that elicit painful thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Sometimes these triggers are tied to past painful or traumatic experiences; other times they’re connected to expectations or assumptions. The important part is to notice the pain that arises when you’re triggered and your reaction to that pain.

Some Questions to Help You Become Aware of Your Reactions

  • Do you go into catastrophizing, ruminating, worry, or anger?
  • Is your self-talk negative, full of blame and anger?
  • Do you feel tension in your body (i.e. heart racing, muscles tense, stomach upset)?
  • Is there an urge to lash out, criticize, or avoid the situation? (This is the body’s fight-or-flight response being activated.)

It’s important to remember that as humans our instinct is to resist pain, and it is this same resistance that can create prolonged suffering. So instead of blaming yourself for reacting, see if you can soften the judgment and accept that in this moment you’re triggered and in pain. Bring acceptance to the situation you’re facing even if you hate it!

Acceptance Is Not Resignation

Acceptance doesn’t mean you like what’s happening, or that you give up and accept that things are never going to change. It means you stop resisting or avoiding what you don’t like. This shift helps us respond to the difficult/painful situations in ways that heal, bring clarity of mind, and help us make decisions based on what is in our own best interest. When we soften the judgment that fuels the resistance, we begin to open our hearts toward ourselves and we hold our experience in a compassionate embrace.

Self-Compassion to Soothe the Pain

In practicing self-compassion, we ask, “How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?” —Kristen Neff

Self-compassion is a loving and kind response to our own pain. In moving from acceptance to self-compassion, we honor and accept that reacting to pain is a part of being human. We realize that things don’t always go according to plan and acknowledge that all of us, at one time another, will encounter frustrations and losses. Making mistakes is part of learning and growing. The more we open our hearts and accept this, the more we’re able to feel compassion toward ourselves and others. This movement helps us reconnect to the good inside us and is a loving and healing response to pain.

Until next time, may you be free from suffering, and may your heart be filled with compassion.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, therapist in Coral Springs, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Keri

    January 30th, 2014 at 3:04 PM

    I am forever trying to get my kids to see that it is often the difficult things in our lives that are the things that in the end make us just a little bit stronger. For some reason they are very averse to having to deal with things in life that are hard; well I am too but that does not mean that I am going to bury my head in the sand. What are we going to take away from that other than the fact that we are letting the challenges in life keep us weak instead of taking that chance to learn and become stronger as a result? Now I realize that all of this has taken me years to understand but I hope that by giving them this message at a young age will show them that yes, like can be full of difficulties, but it is so rewarding once you decide that it doesn’t matter, you are strong enough to confront them and move on.

  • dondra

    January 31st, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    Kind of an eye opener how learning to have compassion for ourselves is just the first step of learning to be more kind toward and have compassion toward others.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 31st, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    Hi Keri, thanks for posting. It’s true that the challenges we face in life can often be opportunities to learn and grow. It’s also the way we approach these challenges that helps us to grow. Criticizing ourselves often increases the pain and keeps us stuck. We get stuck with shame and a sense that in some way we aren’t good enough. We can also become fearful and out of this fear resist change. So it’s not easy and what helps us is when we can acknowledge what we are experiencing; that it’s difficult, that we’re scared and have compassion towards ourselves as we move through these challenges.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    January 31st, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    Thank you Dondra! Very well said! It is a healing way to approach ourselves, others and life.

  • seth

    February 1st, 2014 at 5:25 AM

    How do I get there? When do I get to that point of finding that the pain is alright to embrace, that it won’t kill me? Cause that is definitely how it feels at most points, that’s why I choose to try everything that I can to bury it.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    February 1st, 2014 at 1:55 PM

    Hi Seth…Great questions! There isn’t a short and easy answer to your questions. What I write about both here and on my blog is the practice of Mindfulness which is an approach that helps us see what is happening in the moment in a non-judgmental way. So that instead of getting caught up in a story about ourselves or adding to the pain become aware of what we are doing that is transforming the pain to suffering. Much of the time it is our thoughts, worries and stories that cut us off from the present moment and from being able to connect with the pain and bring compassion, acknowledging that what we are experiencing is difficult. So instead of running away or distracting ourselves we begin to learn to stay with our experience. To notice that we’ve gotten triggered and are reacting…to begin to connect with how this reaction is unfolding in our bodies, mind an d heart. It is a practice that requires patience and time. To learn more about it you can read an article I wrote here on the practice of self compassion goodtherapy.org/blog/healing-power-of-compassion-0411124/. Also Tara Brach, who is therapist and Meditation Teacher has free podcasts about this practice of Mindfulness Meditation. You can download and listen to her talks at tarabrach.com. Be patient and kind towards yourself when you are in pain as this is an essential first step in shifting from reacting to responding. Thank you for taking the time to read and post a response.

  • Amy Armstrong

    Amy Armstrong

    February 2nd, 2014 at 9:04 PM

    Thank you, Cindy, for such a clear and relevant post. I’m going to check out those resources on Tara Branch’s website as well. I practice yoga and I am a huge proponent of mindfulness, self awareness, and compassion both for myself and my clients. Too many of us are walking around going through the motions every day without feeling anything, and life is just happening around us. Sometimes, we all just have to get through things and move on, but it seems like moving on constantly has become the default setting for most of us when it really should be the exception to the norm.

  • Jake

    February 3rd, 2014 at 3:59 AM

    I get into this pattern of negative self talk too when things seem to be a little topsy turvey. Itry to get out of that habit because I know that it doesn’t in the end do any good, but when you get all of that little chatter going through your mind then there are times when this is hard to ignore.
    Negativity can lead you down a path of all sorts of hurtful behavior and you are only harming yourself when this becomes the norm. All of this I get, I understand, but it is breaking the cycle that has become the difficult thing, the challenge for me that I try to talk myself out of but always end up mired in again.

  • Jennifer D

    April 9th, 2015 at 12:01 PM

    Jake,

    I know what you mean, I have negative self talk Each and every day.. it’s non stop..I’m alone, and have no friends… I want therapy but can’t afford it… nobody cares about me or my family. I’M WORTHLESS!!

  • Perry

    February 6th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    When you allow yourself to recognize what causes you pain, you then allow yourself to process it in a whole different way. If you look at what causes the pain, then I think that you have a much better chance visualizing a different way to go through life, and learn from this instead of constantly being on the run from it.
    Hey, I am not saying that you have to welcome the pain necessarily, but it does give you more insight to study it than it does to try to constantly be on the run from it.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    February 6th, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    Thank you Jake, Amy and Perry for your comments. The first step towards helping ourselves when we are in pain is to notice what we’re doing when pain arises. Sometimes it is that we try to numb it with substances, behaviors or we avoid it. Then it’s important that rather than criticizing yourself for how you handle the pain or trying to change what is happening you accept that what you are feeling is difficult and painful and to be compassionate towards yourself. It’s changing your reaction (running, avoiding, getting consumed by) to responding (notice the trigger…how are you responding to it…how can you notice without making yourself or what is happening wrong.) It is in accepting what is happening that we can begin to respond to it. There is so much more that I can say but it is about actually about practicing mindfulness that helps you begin to shift from suffering to responding in a way that heals.

  • Gerard Gonzales

    February 28th, 2014 at 8:26 AM

    Acceptance is the key to all of problems. Accepting that I am powerless over situations, events, thinking and behavior of other people helps me today on having a peaceful steady mind

  • Cindy Ricardo

    March 5th, 2014 at 11:07 AM

    Hi Gerard. Yes, it is when we accept what is happening instead of resisting that we can help ourselves. The way we react to “problems” often transforms pain into suffering. So it isn’t that we can be pain free. It is that we can learn to help ourselves through the painful things that happen in life. Thank you for your insightful reply :-)

  • Jennifer D

    April 9th, 2015 at 12:03 PM

    I don’t have an outlet to speak about my self talk, everyone is too busy or I have worn out my welcome. Why bot gnu error anymore? Autism mom’s don’t get any compassion, we just get judged!!

  • Cindy Ricardo

    Cindy Ricardo

    August 27th, 2015 at 9:48 PM

    Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry that I didn’t see your message until now! When we are faced with challenging situations, feelings or thoughts it can be difficult to see clearly as the thoughts form into stories that then can form into beliefs about life, ourselves or others. I do think that what helps is awareness of thoughts and the ability to see that thoughts whether positive or negative are not facts, they aren’t true and when we react to them as if they are we invariably suffer. So if I think no one likes me because I had a negative experience with a group or with one person it will stop me from reaching out for support and I sit in a belief about myself and others that doesn’t apply to everyone in the world. I’m sure based on what you wrote that your situation is hard, painful and challenging. There is help out there including free or low cost counseling.There are also groups for parent of special needs children. Please find the number for first call for help in your area and they may be able to help you. Lastly, you are not worthless! This is again the negative thoughts talking. No one is worthless although we may face trauma, disappointments and pain in life that can lead us to think this way, but it’s not true.

  • Jennifer

    August 28th, 2015 at 8:16 AM

    I have been wrestling with feeling good and bad. I want to help a friend of mine whom lost her son 8 months ago to sucicide, he was only 20.. I dont want to succeed in anything anymore…im out of faith, hope, love. I dont know what to do anymore!!

  • Cindy Ricardo

    Cindy Ricardo

    August 28th, 2015 at 2:49 PM

    Hi Jennifer, That is so sad and tragic. Please reach out for help…here is the website address for First Call for Help: 211.org/ Please contact them and they can direct you to services for counseling within your state. The main thing is that you reach out and talk to someone so that you don’t feel so alone. Take care of yourself and be well

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