Twenty-twenty has been a lot to swallow. But in terms of how to cope and carry on, the best first step may indeed be accepting the realities we’ve faced, however difficult or grim.
In Japan, the concept of acceptance is fundamental to the traditional culture. There are many Japanese words that translate to “acceptance” – “ukeireru” is just one of the more current choices, but people may refer to the concept using others. Regardless of word choice, psychologists say acceptance is a value that can go far in helping us manage stressors big and small, from coping with a Wi-Fi outage to living through a global pandemic.
“Sometimes it’s necessary to accept who you are, what you do, and what society does to you,” explains Masato Ishida, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Okinawan Studies at University of Hawai`i at Manoa. It’s not the same thing as resignation, he adds. Rather, it’s more so accepting the current situation in order to make peace with it and either make the best of it or move on.
Shigenori Nagatomo, Ph.D., a professor of religion at Temple University specializing in East Asian Buddhism research, uses the English word “harmony” to describe how acceptance or ukeireru is part of Japanese culture. “Human beings are understood to be ‘beings in nature.’ Hence the importance of establishing harmony with it and with everything else in the world,” he says.
A lot of people in Japan have an aim-high, work-hard attitude, which makes it tough to accept anything less than perfect, Ishida explains. So this underlying way of acceptance helps in those times when everything doesn’t go according to plan.
How to embrace “ukeireru” in your own life:
Ukeireru goes beyond self-acceptance. It’s about accepting the realities that surround you, too – your relationships, your roles in the communities you’re a part of, and the situations you face – rather than fighting them, according to Ishida.
What’s more, psychology research tells us being more accepting of our own thoughts and emotions without judging them promotes improved mental health and helps us better cope with the stressors we do face. Scott Haas, Ph.D., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based psychologist, wrote a book on the topic of ukeireru after studying Japanese culture (Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance). He explains that by practicing acceptance, you make space in your life to move on from negative or unpleasant situations. For example: To find motivation to get a new job, you first have to accept you’re ready to move on from your current role — or, to start grieving the loss of a loved one, you have to accept they’ve passed away, Haas explains.
Acceptance is much different from resignation, which is when you submit to something you’re facing and give up in terms of making a change for the better, or getting out of that situation. Its also isn’t necessarily something you block out a half hour in your calendar to practice. Rather, it’s a mindset to guide your thinking day after day. Ishida describes it as a “slow-cook philosophy,” meaning the more you bake it into how you interact with people and the world, the more naturally you’ll find yourself using it in response to stressful and negative situations.
So how do you get started? Here are some tips:
Make time to connect with nature.
When it comes to accepting reality, the very ground we stand on is a good place to start, Haas says. Get a houseplant. Go for a walk. Spend more time outdoors! It will help you establish that harmony with nature that Nagatomo is talking about, which is fundamental to acceptance.
Recognize what’s actually stressing you out when you’re feeling wound up.
It’s going to be tough to accept situations if you’re misinterpreting what’s upsetting you, or what stressors you’re actually facing, Haas says. Are you arguing more with someone in your household because they’re behaving differently – or because you’re both stressed about the hardships brought on by the pandemic, for example? Are you really stressed about your dry cleaning not being ready – or because you have a big work deadline that week that’s putting you on edge outside of working hours, too?
“It doesn’t always feel obvious when you’re experiencing it,” Haas says. But oftentimes the problem isn’t you or the other person (in whatever situation you’re stressed about), it’s some underlying problem that’s ramping up tension. Try to practice connecting more with the root issue and not burying it with timely stressors.
Remind yourself that every situation is temporary.
We tend to feel stressed when we feel trapped, Haas says. And one way to make any situation immediately less stressful is to remind yourself that it’s temporary – and whatever unpleasantness or burden you’re feeling won’t last forever, he explains.
Practice mindfulness or meditation.
Take time to do things that help ground you in the present moment. Take time to do things that help you tune into your thoughts and feelings over the noise of whatever outside stressors you’re facing. Mindfulness and meditation practices can help you do this, Haas says – so can journaling, going for a walk by yourself, or listening to music. “Anything that helps you remove yourself from a situation to create space away from the stress can help enormously,” Haas says.
Make incremental changes.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, so don’t expect it to. Whatever new situation you find yourself in that you’re trying to accept and adapt to, do so by making small, incremental changes to your routine, Haas says.
For example, don’t compare a new significant other to your past relationships; but instead work to appreciate each trait that makes this person who they are. This kind of mindset can be applied elsewhere, too: Focus on making one new friendship at a time after moving to a new place, familiarize yourself with each process at a new job gradually, or learn to move with your body after a major injury (you won’t wake up on day one feeling back to normal!). It takes time for something new to become familiar, feel routine and truly meaningful to you.
Don’t be afraid to abandon routines that aren’t working for you.
And when it comes to adopting those new routines, be flexible. If something isn’t working, figure out something else to do, Haas says. For example, a lot of people picked up new hobbies (like baking bread, doing needle point, or birding) or habits to help them get through 2020 and the pandemic. If those routines are no longer making you happy, helping you find joy in the present moment, or no longer feel worthwhile in 2021 and beyond, move on and try something else, Haas says.
Be kind — to others and to yourself.
Remember, it’s okay to feel fear, sadness, or anxiety about all the uncertainty we’re experiencing right now. Rather than beat yourself up for those feelings or try to fight them, be kind and compassionate toward yourself. It’s part of acceptance, Haas says. You have to be okay with feeling the way you do. And then you can go ahead and figure out how you can make yourself feel better.