On the role of acceptance in injury recovery

Recently I had a patient who inspired me to write about something that frequently comes up in the clinic – the concept of acceptance as a start point for progress.

When I first encountered the term “acceptance” some years ago, it bounced off me like hail on the roof. It seemed completely counter to everything I had been brought up with– goal setting, striving, always looking forward. The idea of acceptance seemed to smack of, well, giving up. I rejected the idea completely.

Fortunately through the passage of time and the school of life, tiny chinks of insight emerged, and I realised that acceptance is far from giving up. It is simply and powerfully acknowledging where you truly are right now. It is the strong choice, not the weak one.

Now if that sounds obvious, let me paint the picture of many of my patients. These folk have often had pain or physical dysfunction for some time. They have often had a lot of treatment or training, and made little or no progress. The stronger they see themselves as, the harder they fight, but their experience is something like being a fly trapped in a bottle, striving to rise, hitting the lid and falling back down again. It is exhausting.

These patients are often masking a sense of panic and even despair with a demonstration of strength and determination. They vehemently reject their situation, seeing their bodies as separate entities that are letting them down. Their sense of identity is deeply threatened by their perceived failures and weaknesses, so they fight hard to preserve it. It is an awful place to be.

The link between presence and the present becomes very evident. To be aware in your body requires that you inhabit the present. These people however are flipping between the past (“how I used to be”) and the future (“where I want to be right now”) but cannot accept where they actually are. If the present is unacceptable, presence in the body is disturbing and threatening.  People in this situation frequently therefore cannot sense themselves, finding it incredibly difficult to connect to the feelings of movements and muscles. Instead, they keep trying activities that are way too much too soon, skipping over the critical but humble foundations that require connection with the body, in favour of big distraction and muscle noise.

Maybe this is familiar to you too.

If the cycle is to be broken, there is a time to make a decision in the face of injury or illness. You can either continue to expend energy on striving to already be at a point in the future that is currently unrealistic, believing that this is “positive thinking”. Or, you could look yourself in the face for the first time and really accept where you are in the present.

It’s not easy. It is powerful though – knowing where you really are in the present creates the platform for a progressive plan towards a new future.

Would you navigate to a destination without first knowing where you are, even if it isn’t where you want to be? Of course not. To plan any route, you need to have a realistic and accurate start point.

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals, but goals involve a plan, and a plan has to start somewhere, otherwise goals just become wishful thinking. Feeling our feet on the ground today gives us a position to influence where we are tomorrow. Grasping the present gives us choices for the future.

Making this leap can be very emotional and feel very uncertain – after fighting for so long, the exhaustion underneath is suddenly revealed, and that can feel pretty bad for a while. However, this is part of acceptance also. It is how things really are, and once exposed, they can be addressed.

So, instead of just flailing your sword around desperately at your situation, pause for a minute and feel your feet on the ground. Take a moment to exhale. Now, let’s take all that “fight” energy and turn it into clear, cool determination and commitment.

Quit the battle and plan to win the campaign.

This is acceptance.


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