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Danny Penman, Ph.D.: Self-Acceptance: The Key to Success

05/24/2013 10:38 am ET | Updated Jul 24, 2013
Danny Penman

Shortly after the British mountaineer George Mallory disappeared while attempting to climb Everest in 1924, a journalist asked why the team had continued with their assault on the summit on that fateful day.

"The price of life is death," replied one of the survivors.

That single sentence sums up the human condition more than any other. We are here on this earth for a short while, experience a panoply of bitter-sweet emotions, and then depart far sooner than we might wish. We forget this at our peril.

We can become so embroiled in conventional ideas of "success" that we often forget the fundamental paradox that lies at the heart of the human condition; that to enjoy a truly successful existence, you must first accept all of your faults, foibles and failures. For it is only when you can accept yourself, warts and all, that you can begin to live a truly full and joyful life. This is completely at odds with conventional notions of "success" -- and the relentless drive for ever more money and power -- that have underpinned society for the past century.

There is nothing wrong with money and power in themselves. They have driven an economic system that has largely banished abject poverty and infectious disease (from the developed world, at least). But the lust for material success is also wrecking our quality of life. So much so, that around one in ten people will become clinically depressed over the next year. The average age that people first become depressed is now just 13. And things are likely to become far worse. By 2020, the World Health Organization estimates that depression will impose the second-biggest global health burden. Think about that for a moment; depression will impose a bigger health burden than heart disease, arthritis and many forms of cancer in less than seven years.

Depression may be exacting a staggering toll but it's cousin -- chronic anxiety -- is becoming disturbingly common too. Average levels of anxiety in children and young people is now at a point that would be considered "clinical" in the 1950s. So, it's not a great stretch of the imagination to assume that in a decade or two, unhappiness, depression and anxiety will have become the normal human condition rather than happiness and contentment.

It is tempting to see this meltdown in mental health and well-being as a collection of discrete problems but it is, in fact, a symptom of a far deeper malaise. This can be loosely described as "chronic dissatisfaction." This often manifests as a highly critical inner voice; the one that constantly chides us for our failures. It attacks us for not working harder, for not achieving more, for failing to juggle family and career successfully. And when we "fail," it makes us feel guilty so that we become increasingly angry, bitter and cynical. Such emotions consume our energy in a vicious cycle that can drive us further into the pits of despair, depression and burn-out.

It is tempting to argue with this self-critical inner voice. It seems entirely rational to try and "solve" our negative thoughts and emotions. But this will always fail, just as it has failed in the past. It simply adds fuel to the flames. To step outside chronic dissatisfaction, we need to embrace a different way of relating to ourselves and the world. This different approach is one of acceptance of ourselves, our failings, and of whatever is troubling us. It means turning towards them, befriending them, even if we don't like it, or it fills us with fear and dread.

For many of us, the idea of "acceptance" is heresy of the first order, but this initial reaction stems from the frequent inability of individual words to convey true meaning. Mindful acceptance, which arises from the full conscious awareness engendered by mindfulness meditation, is subtly different to the usual passive flavor of acceptance.

Acceptance in the context of mindfulness is not the passive acceptance of the intolerable. It is not "giving up," nor is it resignation or spinelessness. Neither is mindfulness anything to do with detachment. Instead, acceptance is a pause, a period of allowing, of letting be, of clear seeing. Acceptance takes us off the hair trigger, so that we're less likely to make a knee-jerk reaction. It allows us to become fully aware of our failings and difficulties, with all of their painful nuances, and to respond to them in the most skilful way possible. It gives us more time and space to respond. And often, the wisest way of responding is to do nothing at all.

In short, mindful acceptance takes the sting out of our frantic, negative thoughts.

Of course, such acceptance can be extremely difficult to attain. In the book I cowrote with Mark Williams, Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, we detail the 'Befriending' meditation (download it here). This short meditation encourages a different approach to dealing with life's problems, one that is endorsed by the latest advances in psychology and by neuroscience in general.

This idea of such radical acceptance is central to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), upon which our book, Mindfulness, is based. MBCT was developed by my co-author Mark Williams and his team at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and Toronto in Canada. It grew out of the inspiring work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMass Medical Center near Boston.

The eight-week MBCT program not only helps people face up to chronic dissatisfaction, but has also been proven to help relieve anxiety, stress, depression and exhaustion in numerous clinical trials in America and elsewhere. It's so effective that it's now one of the preferred treatments for depression recommended by the UK's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

There are countless solid psychological reasons why we should accept ourselves with as much warmth and compassion as we can muster. But perhaps the best reason of all is the one which originally motivated Mallory and countless other explorers.

When asked why Everest should be climbed, Mallory famously replied: "Because it is there."

Danny Penman Ph.D. is the author of 'Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World' along with Mark Williams Ph.D. of Oxford University.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with our women's conference, "The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power" which will take place in New York on June 6, 2013. To read all of the posts in the series and learn more about the conference, click here. Join the conversation on Twitter #ThirdMetric.