When I suggest to patients that acceptance of their situation is a major step toward finding relief from the stress and difficulties they experience, they tend to look at me with disbelief or skepticism. For them, acceptance means “giving in”, or “giving up”. For me, it means, “This is my situation. It’s one I can’t fix or alter so, instead of trying to fix or change it, I need to learn to deal with it constructively.”
In his first inaugural speech, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “..the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...”. That wasn’t exactly true. Our country was besieged by economic woes. The depression had reached its depth and people were paralyzed with fear. So, there were truly many things to fear. But, Roosevelt knew that you can’t live in the world, even in good times, without fear of failure, of loss, of rejection, of unemployment, of poor health and even of death. If you’re alive, there are things in the world that are bound to upset you. Those things, however, don’t incapacitate you half as much as your fear of being fearful. Once you can deal with your own fear, you’re far better able to cope with whatever challenges or problems life deals you. That’s exactly what Roosevelt was saying. All you have to fear is your own state of fear, which exacerbate feelings of helplessness and an inability to cope with what life presents you. But, in almost every instance, the degree to which you can effectively deal with being fearful is equivalent to the degree to which you can accept that you’re okay, even if you’re fearful. In fact, on many occasions, the absence of fear isn’t a sign of strength, it’s an inappropriate and unrealistic behavior.
Let me try to give you an example. Carter is an extremely successful college graduate. A CPA with a Master’s degree in finance. His basic make-up is to please, to perform and to be successful. To that end, he diligently applies himself to whatever task or challenge he faces. He is a dedicated worker. He isn’t afraid to put out the time or the effort in any situation, as long as the end is one that will portray him as an adequate, good, kind, caring human being. There is nothing wrong with that. Except, the degree to which he feels that way disallows him to rest on his laurels, to enjoy any success he achieves, or to feel that his efforts are ever enough. You might describe him as a person who only feels as good as his last magic trick. Yesterday’s magic trick has no rollover value. He starts every day with a clean slate. As a result, he is a driven individual, who experiences feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression. All of which contribute to sleeping problems, loss of appetite and an intense need to obsess over irrelevant issues.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with his motivation, his desire to achieve, or the fact that he has been successful as a result of, or in spite of, these characteristics. The problem is that his behavioral pattern causes him serious problems of a physical, emotional and interpersonal nature. There will always be times when you’ll feel scared or fall short of your goals. There will even be occasions when a solution isn’t possible, or when the best of your efforts prove fruitless. In those instances, you cannot consider yourself lacking or a failure. Instead, you have to perceive yourself as having a good batting average and being well-meaning. Only gods are supposed to be perfect.
Unfortunately, during times of stress, Carter, despite his intellectual awareness of these facts, emotionally experiences feelings of depression and inadequacy and perceives himself to be weak and insufficient. The result is an increased need to work harder, do more, erase his failures and fix or hide whatever shortcomings he sees himself as having. That isn’t healthy behavior. It’s analogous to the individual who wakes from being drunk the night before and tries to cure his hangover with another drink. In those instances, more is not better, it’s less. Sports psychologists learned this a long time ago. Consequently, their suggestions to individuals who go into a batting slump, who hit a period when they’re blocked, or feel unable to perform at a previously successful level, is to do the opposite of what most of you are prone to do when you reach that level of frustration. They tell you to do less, that practicing more, pushing yourself to the nth degree and devoting all your energy to improving your excellence only increases your level of anxiety and your feelings of imperfection. The result is a decrease in your performance level. They further suggest that you look back to previous successes and use those memories as a source of comfort and an indication that you are adequate. They also suggest you attempt to direct your energy toward activities that will give you pleasure and satisfaction. The purpose: to decrease your stress, not augment it. That’s when doing less truly proves to be more.
Their suggestions apply to Carter and to every one of you. When you hit that wall, feel depressed, or discover that you can’t do everything you want; it pulls the rug out from under you because, as children, you were told, “You can do anything you want and you can be anything you want to be.” But that isn’t quite true. The message behind it is that hard work, repetition and positive motivation all contribute to success. That’s often correct but, sometimes, it provokes failure. Learning theorists have known for years that stress, or motivation, can cause you to achieve more when you’re involved in simplistic tasks. But, as the tasks increase in complexity, as they become more difficult and more challenging, increased stress doesn’t enhance performance, it decreases it. That being the case, what you have to do is accept you for who you are, an imperfect human being, potentially capable of great accomplishments, but susceptible to feeling a lack of self worth, anxious over new challenges and fearful. The solution is that you not be controlled by those feelings. Your motto has to be, “I can’t run from my fears. I have to accept them and walk through them.”