High-Wire Act: Treading the Line Between Acceptance and Self-Care

This is a hell of a post to write.

There’s a famous saying about how if we don’t learn from our past mistakes, we’re doomed to repeat them. Basically, life has this funny and sometimes excruciating way of presenting us with the same experiences time and again until the lesson we’re meant to learn from them finally sticks. And for me – even before the conception of this website – it’s been setting boundaries and figuring out where I draw the line when my notion of myself as this empathic, open, accepting person begins to become hazardous to my mental and emotional well-being.

quoteThe first pronounced incidence of this came nearly four years ago when an ex-girlfriend and close friend of mine began her descent into the abyss of addiction. Religious types might describe this as a “love the sinner, hate the sin,” scenario (although I personally don’t know too many of those types who actually manage to pull that off in a genuinely accepting, compassionate, non-judgmental way). Either way, I futilely tried to “save” her (which, at the time, she had no interest in) and finally realized I was in over my head and needed to break free when I found myself in an NA meeting (because she wouldn’t go to one herself) crying to a roomful of strangers after assuring them that I wasn’t Marla Singer, I just needed some backup and didn’t know where else to turn. Taking a tip from a comment Dr. Drew made on that season of Celebrity Rehab, I eulogized  “the her I used to know” for myself (a bit morbid and melodramatic, perhaps, but it was effective in the moving forward process) and wished her well, telling her that I hoped she made it out alive but that I had to wash my hands of the situation because it was unhealthy for me.

I like to think I learned the bulk of my lesson on that one, but it seems life has begged to differ; every now and again, I’ll get hit with a smaller scale refresher course. Usually, it’s something as simple as fading a toxic friend out of my life… and nine times out of ten, they’ll actually even do it for me, losing interest when I do something “unforgivable” like, say, reach the executive decision that life is too short for a pity party and stop putting my own needs and happiness on hold to cater to their deep commitment to wallowing in misery and negativity. But those are easy, hardly really “lessons” at all as much as they’re a long-run contribution to an improved quality of life… or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.” It’s when I find myself having to sever ties with someone I love and who – for the most part – has been a positive asset to my life that things get tricky, and recently, I’ve been faced with just such a situation.

So, what do you do – especially as someone who’s set themselves up publicly as a beacon of acceptance – when accepting the choices of someone you love interferes with your own mental and emotional well-being, making keeping them around while simultaneously exercising necessary self-care seem like an impossible feat? Without going into too much detail, I recently made the difficult decision to cut someone who’s been extremely special and significant to me out of my life. Further complicating the situation, this wasn’t even someone who had done anything “wrong” themselves, but rather, who was going down a path that was completely out of alignment with anything I wanted for my own life. Paulo Coehlo wrote that, “It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path,” and while that certainly rings true, it’s hard to just sit back and watch someone you love making choices that you might view as potentially destructive. And on the flip side, it feels really fucking self-righteous to even say that, but it is what it is at the end of the day. Plus… you really can’t say anything anyway; not unless you’re prepared to do battle, which I don’t recommend. It’s never worth it. Ever. All it does is stir up angst and anger and misunderstanding and a metric fuck ton of pain, and the outcome never changes. Because the thing is, we all have our life lessons to learn, and no matter how well-intentioned it may be, trying to help someone else “skip ahead” because we love them and don’t want to see them hurt only does them a disservice in the end. My yoga teacher (who is brilliant and amazing and somehow always manages to drop the precise gem of wisdom I happen to need on me at the precise moment I most need it) often uses her children as an example of this, describing the experience of wanting to “stand in life’s doorway and protect them from anything that could harm them,” but recognizing that in doing so, she would be preventing their learning lessons that will help them grow.

I know she’s right, of course. It’s just that the acceptance of that fact is a really hard lesson to learn in and of itself… and it comes with a bitch of a learning curve, quite frankly. Or maybe the answers even lie in the email I received from a random guy who happened to stumble across this site and explained that, while he loved the concept as a whole:

“I have decided to reject the word acceptance in my life (not to accept acceptance). Accepting, in my understanding of the word, means that we finally allow something we dislike to enter our life: our noisy neighbor, a disease, those infamous politicians, our personality, ignorance, you name it. It implicitly says something like ‘I will live with it, and I will twist myself enough so that I can endure this pain, as I follow an idealization of myself as open to everything that happens in the world that surrounds me.’
I don’t want to ‘accept’. I want to embrace. Embracing happens once we have integrated the opposites, once our true genuine self has incorporated the alien thing in the body, the mind and the spirit. I know that ‘unconditional acceptance’ means it, that it speaks about that very process of embracing. And yet I still keep feeling incomplete and dissatisfied when I hear or read ‘accepting.’ I think we need profound ontological distinctions that describe (and embrace) the world to come in a more accurate way.”

Definitely some food for thought. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, though. I don’t have a clever, pithy little ending to tie all this together. It’s all a perpetual learning process, and truthfully, I might always struggle with the boundaries of acceptance without sacrificing my own self-care. All I can hope is that I at least “passed” my lesson this time around… because this is certainly not a course I ever care to repeat.

© Kristin Despina for Acceptance Revolution, 2013

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