If french fries are wrong, I don’t want to be right. Printed on the side of a beach bag in a store window, this line made me laugh.
The truth is I love french fries. Actually I am good with potatoes in every form – baked, mashed or made into chips and seasoned with sea salt and vinegar. Maybe it’s that bit of Irish heritage in me. But, seriously, beyond french fries, what about those things in our lives that we experience as wrong and desperately want to make right, and just can’t?
Try, try, and try again. Much has been written about mental health, grit and resilience. We teach our children to face challenges and learn the skills that it takes to solve the myriad problems that we inevitably experience in life. From the time children are learning to walk, we urge them to stand up and try again after they land on their bums. We cajole them to get back on the bike after they’ve skinned their knees. We coach them to study harder when the trigonometry lesson doesn’t make any sense. Grit, determination, and resilience lead to enhanced sense of agency, confidence and self-esteem – all of which are good for our mental health.
But sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard we try. Eventually, we each have life experiences and problems where even grit, determination and resilience don’t get us the outcomes we want. Whether these traumatic experiences occur earlier or later in life, they can have profound emotional and psychological impact. At the extreme, they render us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and impairment in mental health and wellbeing.
In search of understanding. When I was in training to become a clinical psychologist, the fundamental goal of psychotherapy was understanding. It was thought to be the lynch pin of mental health and wellbeing. Sessions of exploration would lead to uncovering unconscious wishes, drives, and fantasies. Analysis of experience would lead to understanding interpersonal and intrapsychic dynamics. Clarity would emerge and relieve mental distress and illness. Associated anxiety and depression would resolve. It is a process that works well – much of the time.
The limits of understanding. The world is a complex place. People in our lives are multifaceted. Life is complicated. Sometimes understanding only gets us so far. This is particularly true in the case of trauma. Why does a friend die of a rare cancer? Why are innocent people killed in a fire? Why does a parent abuse a child? Why does a partner turn away? Although we can describe these life events, at a certain point, we reach the limits of understanding. We need other strategies to help us get to healing.
The power of acceptance. The world of psychotherapy continues to evolve as we grow in our recognition of the impact of trauma on mental health. Psychotherapies today more broadly embrace and integrate the role of acceptance in healing, as reflected in interventions like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Building on the principles of cognitive and behavioral therapies, ACT helps individuals develop self-compassion and acceptance of their emotional experiences, gain perspective on past trauma, and commit to constructively focusing on what is in one’s control to make decisions and move forward in ways that promote mental health and wellbeing to find peace that passes understanding.
As I reflect on this dynamic relationship between understanding and acceptance, I am transported back in time to Mrs. Rogers, my favorite elementary school teacher. Knowing that my family was going through a difficult stretch, she found me on the playground one day and gave me a bracelet engraved with the serenity prayer, “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.” Little did I know that decades later this sage intelligence would be finding its way into mainstream models of mental health and psychotherapy.