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#011: Acceptance as Change

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
11 min read
#011: Acceptance as Change

Hello from the Catskills. I wasn’t expecting to write this issue from upstate New York, but I was thrown several curve balls the past two weeks.

A few days before Thanksgiving, my eldest daughter, Faye, tested positive for COVID, and the two of us separated from my wife and newborn to quarantine. In an instant, our holiday plans and my visions of a packed house bursting with family and laughter evaporated into thin air. It was now just me and Faye, and enough groceries for ten people.

As soon as she tested positive and I said goodbye to Eliza, a flood of thoughts and emotions barraged my mind and body. I quickly became angry, resentful and frustrated.

What the fuck. How could this be happening now? This wasn’t what I expected. I did so much to protect my family—how the hell did my daughter get COVID? This was supposed to be a lovely and restful holiday and now it’s going to be hard and difficult. Our inlaws were supposed to be here to help with the kids. The family has been literally torn apart. How am I going to exercise this week? I have a kitchen stuffed with food and a 16-pound turkey, and just two mouths to feed. How am I going to entertain Faye for the next five days? Thanksgiving is ruined. I’m definitely getting COVID. Fuck my life.

Shortly after my internal tirade, sadness washed over me like heavy tides sweeping over cold sand in a storm. Tears began to well up in my eyes as I put Faye to sleep that first night, and we listened to our Sleepy Time mix. The weight of the disappointment began to bear down on me as I laid in bed next to her small body. In that dark room, reality and grief finally hit me—Faye and I were going to be alone this holiday. What I was expecting was no longer possible. Reality had different plans for us.

This drama played out in my head for nearly two days. Anger, resentment and sadness were on repeat like a bad holiday playlist. On the second night, I couldn’t sleep. Finally, at 6am, as I was lying in bed with my sick daughter, I began to relax. I let myself breathe, be with my experience, and get curious. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was recycling unhelpful thoughts and emotions over and over. I was stuck in a cognitive emotive loop. Once I clearly saw that I was resisting reality and could feel it in my body, I knew that it was time to take 100% responsibility for the results I was getting and begin to shift my outlook.

As the light of dawn crept through my windows, I thought of the serenity prayer, which is recited at the end of every AA meeting:

“Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I realized that I had a choice—I could continue to resist reality and remain miserable or I could choose to accept the situation and make the most of it.

Through this fresh lens, I now saw that I wasn’t accepting the things I couldn’t change, and wasn’t even focused on what mattered most—the health and wellbeing of my family. Faye needed her dad to show up and care for her. That’s what was in my control, so I chose to embrace reality, accept the hand we were dealt, and pour all of my love and attention into her.

Once I surrendered, everything changed.

The time I spent with Faye over Thanksgiving was one of the most special and memorable weeks of my life. We went on nature walks, sang and danced to the Vivo soundtrack, learned a new letter every day, opened a nail salon, made spaghetti out of Playdough, painted Shark Dog, built a massive pillow fort, baked chocolate chip cookies, and watched hours of Frozen and other Disney favorites. I even gave Faye her first bowl of Lucky Charms, my favorite cereal from childhood. Best of all, we shared a special Thanksgiving meal together at the dining room table, and she told me that she was grateful for me.

Those days were challenging, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. I’ve never felt so close to Faye. What started out as a disaster became an opportunity to feel and practice gratitude for family, health, safety, and so much more.

As I was reflecting on what happened last week, I had an unexpected realization: sometimes change occurs not by doing but by non-doing. Acceptance and surrender are powerful forms of change. This notion reminded me of an Eckhart Tolle quote: “Acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it brings something entirely new into this world. That peace, a subtle energy vibration, is consciousness.”

Many of us, myself included, believe we have to push against reality and actively resist what’s being thrown our way to make change happen. Non-acceptance and a desire for control ultimately lead to mental suffering rather than change. I learned this the hard way last week. Once I let go, surrendered, and accepted reality, I was able to shift and change.

So how can we shift from non-acceptance to acceptance?

Well, if you’re human there will be countless opportunities to practice acceptance and surrender every day. It doesn’t have to be something as earth moving as a positive COVID test right before the holiday. It can be bumper to bumper traffic, something your partner does that drives you nuts, or an important meeting that was canceled at the last minute. Whatever it is that leads to resistance, see it as an opportunity to practice and learn about yourself.

Remember, when we have an aversion to a situation, a person or even ourselves, it’s natural to resist our experience and any strong emotions that arise, such as anger and resentment and sadness. However, the first step is to fully be with your experience and emotions. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re resentful, be resentful. If you’re sad, be sad. Act those emotions out. Let them move through you like a wave. This is healthy—but as I learned last week, only up to a certain point.

For me, I was still recycling the drama 48 hours after Faye’s positive COVID test. There was nothing I could do to change her diagnosis. Literally nothing. Yet, I resisted reality and caused myself unnecessary suffering for roughly 47 hours. I felt all of my feelings—what was I going to do now?

First, you have to know when it’s time to respond differently. How will you know? If the situation is consuming your thought process then it's a sign that it’s time to shift. Start by asking yourself questions to determine where you are. Am I ruminating and recycling negative thoughts in an endless loop? Am I playing the situation over and over? Are my feelings getting stronger over time? Is my reaction at this point hurting or harming me? Am I upset about something entirely out of my control? If you answer yes to these questions, it’s likely you’ve reached the point where it’s time to move acceptance, if you are willing.

Other signs might be physical and physiological. You might ask, how am I sleeping? Is there tension in my body, maybe my shoulders or jaw? How is my body holding this resistance? Remember, emotions don’t occur in the mind, they occur in the body. So non-acceptance will register inside of you as constriction and tension. You can feel it in your muscles and tissues when you slow down, breathe, and tune into your body.

Once you’ve determined that you’re triggered, resisting reality, and it’s no longer serving you, there are a number of things you can do to shift towards acceptance.

  • Ask yourself, have I fully felt all my feelings? Or is this more to feel? Do I need to physically and verbally express my anger, resentment, sadness, etc. more fully? Emotions are just energy in motion. For me, dropping a loud F-bomb, clenching my fists, and letting out a growl is typically how anger likes to move though me.
  • Can you identify the parts of yourself that are triggered? Often when we’re resisting reality and have an aversion, a part of us is activated, and we become identified with it—it becomes who we are. In the heat of the moment, we’re unable to see that we’re a collection of parts. Maybe you have an angry part or a frustrated part? Or maybe you have a sad part? Or a perfectionist part that’s resisting how something turned out? Whatever part is present, get to know it. What does it want? What job does it play? How is it trying to help you? What’s at threat for the part—security, control, or approval? When we get to know our reactive parts, we can see that they have a positive intention and are trying to help and protect us in some way.
  • Relax the body: lie down, try a breathing exercise like 4-7-8 and yoga nidra for at least 10 minutes. These practices are effective at activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps trigger the “rest and digest” response. These will help you relax into your body, priming the mind to feel it is safe. Practices like this also help create a new perspective by shifting your brainwaves from beta to theta, which allows you to drop from an activated ego state into your body, where you’re more resourced. With enough practice, the thoughts you’re identified with may dissolve or won’t take on so much weight.
  • Try to be present. If you’re not present you’re either living in the past (regret, resentment) or living in the future (fear, anxiety) rather than asking what’s in front of you now. If you’re future-casting like ‘what if,’ or drawing up something that’s not going to happen, or ruminating on what could have happened differently, you are not present. Simply ask, what’s here now?
  • Ask yourself, how is this for me? What am I learning about myself and what I want, desire, long for? How might this help me? What inner resources do I have that can help me navigate this situation such as strength, creativity, and resilience?
  • Recite the serenity prayer. This is always available to you as a tool of meditation and contemplation. I am not a religious person, and you may not be either—you don’t need to invoke God or any other Being when reciting this prayer. It’s a simple reminder to put things in perspective when we’re resisting reality, struggling with control, or facing the unexpected.
 “Grant me the serenity
 to accept the things I cannot change,
 the courage to change the things I can,
 and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Remember, acceptance isn’t an intellectual or cognitive activity, it’s an emotional and embodied one. In other words, you can’t intellectually accept what your body doesn’t accept. It wasn’t until I fully got present, sat with my emotions, and relaxed that I was able to accept the situation and move through it, as my best self.

And if you’re unwilling to accept the situation, yourself or someone else, that’s ok too. This is a practice. Some things are much easier to accept than others. And some things take time. It took me nearly 48 hours to finally accept the situation, and I can assure you there are a range of other things in my life that have taken much longer. But here’s the point that I want to drive home to you—we get to learn about ourselves when we’re willing to accept and when we’re unwilling to accept. This isn’t a contest. This is about change, and we can’t change what we’re unaware of.

On the other side of acceptance was a silver lining I didn’t expect. Not only did I have one of the best weeks ever with Faye, but I now have a greater appreciation for family and good health. Nothing in the world is more important than that. Everything came into perspective once I was willing to shift to acceptance.

🤔 For Contemplation

Here are several prompts to help you build awareness around resistance and acceptance:

  • What is something that you've accepted or surrendered to recently? What happened? What did you learn?
  • What in your life–big or small–are you resisting right now? What's that like for you intellectually, emotionally and somatically? Might you willing to shift towards acceptance? How did you know?

🌱 Seeds of Change

Here are five things I’ve been pondering and exploring over the past few weeks. If any resonate, please feel free to forward along to friends.

🌊 Self Unfolding and Slow Change

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Sam Sager, Founder of Intuitive Fitness and Host of the excellent podcast On Renewal, to explore a range of topics, including my journey with addiction and recovery, and shutting down my VC fund to become a professional coach. We also discuss change as a slow wave, the power of self-unfolding, parts-work, shadow, rethinking ambition, and much more. On Renewal (1 hour, 12 minutes)

🍀 “Remember the Lottery”

A few weeks ago, my friend Morgan Johnson recommended an episode of The Knowledge Project with author and speaker Neil Pasricha. Towards the end of the interview Shane Parish asked Neil, what three words would you put on a billboard? After pausing for a few moments, Neil responds, “‘Remember the lottery.’ Because at the end of the day we’ve already won.” What follows is one of the best things you’ll listen to all week. The Knowledge Project (3 minutes)

👣 Stepping into the Afternoon of Life

Last week, I listened to this excellent Rich Roll interview with Chip Conley, the Founder / CEO of Modern Elder Academy. In it, Conley shared this quote from Carl Jung that deeply resonated with me, especially as I have both feet firmly planted in mid-life, and I’m realizing that many of the things that worked for me earlier in life no longer work for me.

“Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”
—Carl G. Jung

🇺🇸 A Country Changing Its Mind

There are times in our lives when we believe change on an individual or societal level is hopeless and impossible. You may feel that way today about issues like climate change or women's rights. But when we think and focus on longer time scales, we can see that just about anything is possible with the right energy and movement behind it. Bill Gates once famously said, “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” This series of tweets from Tim Urban of Wait But Why captures this idea nicely.

🔮 The Psychology of Your Future Self

In this excellent TED talk from 2014, Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert, explains that all of us are “walking around with an illusion that our personal history has come to an end and we’re the people we’re meant to be for the rest of our lives.” However, his research suggests that “change does slow down as we age, but it doesn’t slow down nearly as much as we think.” In other words, we’re all a work in progress whether we’re eighteen or sixty-four. Dr. Gilbert “shares recent research on a phenomenon he calls the ‘end of history illusion,’ where we somehow imagine that the person we are right now is the person we'll be for the rest of time. Hint: that's not the case.” (6 minutes)


Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.


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