06/24/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Acceptance and Choice


I recently met a person who uses a cane to walk; the grace with which she accepts her disability impressed me. By contrast, I've worked with several clients who have struggled to accept the changes in their bodies associated with the aging process. For example, Ms. P. indulges in feelings of self-pity rather than accepting that she suffers from arthritis and can be helped with physical therapy.

An extreme case of acceptance is Susan Spencer-Wendel. After she received the diagnosis of an incurable muscular wasting disease, she fully engaged life by doing everything she could, including traveling to far-off places in the world. Then she chronicled the last year of her life in a memoir by typing on a smartphone with her right thumb. ("Until I Say Goodbye: My Year of Living with Joy" 2013, the New York Times, June, 2014).

Fortunately, most of us don't suffer from an incurable disease and simply have to modify our attitudes to overcome setbacks. In our daily lives, the big question is: What should I accept and what can or should I choose to change?

"The Serenity Prayer," authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous states the question most eloquently:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Regarding alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors, an individual does well to accept that a genetic make-up renders him vulnerable to the danger of addiction.

We develop the power to choose when we're about 2 years old, at which point the child begins to individuate from parents/caretakers. The "good enough" parent allows the toddler to express and exert himself in appropriate situations -- for example, by offering him a choice of clothing he'd like to wear. In contrast, the parent who insists on making all the decisions deprives the developing person of the power to choose. This individual may not develop a sense of confidence and learn to trust himself in making choices.

Many clients don't accept themselves because they fail to see their abilities in the context of their environment. In other words, each of us has a unique starting point in life. To accept and work with a disability can lead to success in spite of, or even because of, it.

Dr. Temple Grandin exemplifies a person who overcame the handicap of autism. Accepting and working within the context of her "deficit" has helped her become an animal expert, inventor, writer and public speaker as an advocate for the autism community and the humane treatment of animals.

Accepting our feelings is important too; like highway signs, they orient us. For example, Mr. O. endured losses in his life that resulted in a depression. Unable to leave the house except for doctor's appointments, he says, "I guess I feel sorry for myself for losing my job." Accepting and admitting what lies at the root of his depressed mood allows him to see the other side, namely, the assets in his life -- his friends and a comfortable home. After he mourns the losses, he has the choice to accept his situation (for better or worse) and move beyond the days of paralysis to incorporate the downs and ups of life.

Conclusion: We do well to question life circumstances and decide what to accept and what to change. Failing to question can lead to feelings of impotence and a lifetime of dissatisfaction.