The mental health arena is rich with references to the stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced us to way back in 1969. The final phase of her model is acceptance. When bad stuff happens, we deny, get angry, bargain, become depressed, and according to the model ideally reach a point of acceptance. Yet increasingly much of our culture refuses to accept grief and pain. We choose to alleviate our pain-loss-disappointment with various strategies. Acceptance (as defined by Kubler-Ross) is unfortunately an important emotional skill our culture seems to have abandoned. We have become addicted to making ourselves feel better. We don’t like hurts, and in fact we do our very best to avoid it.
Why has this happened? Can we really do anything about it? How do we develop a culture of Acceptance versus the need to alleviate or avoid pain? Attachment theory and its perspective on early childhood development might offer some insights.
In attachment theory we talk about how an infant protests and tantrums to express a need. Things don’t feel right, and the child is uncomfortable with their circumstances (hungry, tired, hurting, gassy, etc.). Their expression of discomfort is a cue that the parent needs to respond. In an ideal world this happens almost perfectly, but the world is not really ideal. As much as parents (even the best parents) diligently attempts to understand their child’s needs they sometimes fail. When this happens in the context of a healthy parent child relationship, the child actually learns to develop a sense of acceptance (grace, benefit of the doubt) of their parent’s failure. Though they may not feel great about the parent’s lack of responsiveness and they may actually be disappointed, they accept it. They even develop a resilience and tolerance for waiting the next time there is a need. Ultimately leading to an ability to recall times past when the parent was responsive and met their needs and so the occasional failure can be endured.
The problem comes in our culture’s obsession with alleviating pain. We want so bad to be free of discomfort that when frustrations, losses, or disappointments occur we scramble as quick as possible to respond and escape the pain. We don’t want for ourselves or for others to hurt, so we rush in to fix.
Parents overprotect their kids.
Legislators curry favor with disadvantaged groups.
Therapists entitle rather than empower.
Corporations peddle pleasure to solve your woes.
The results are people who take wide swaths to avoid challenge and engage in tirades rather than tolerance.
If we don’t like something we protest, we boycott, or we belittle.
If we see something upsetting, we post about it on Facebook or write a blog – we passionately believe the lie that the world is really going to hear our voice if we put it on a public forum.
If an employee of a company treats us disrespectfully we quickly fire off an often contemptuous email to corporate headquarters.
We soothe our hurts with all manner of drugs, bad habits, and sugary carbohydrates. We spend more money than we have. We gorge our stomachs. We inject our bodies with toxins.
We use social media to self-promote our “best life” so we can convince ourselves that things are not that bad. We obsess with “likes” and emojis believing the falsity that the more “thumbs up” we acquire, the more consensus we have from our online friends.
Using attachment thinking, if the parent were perfectly responsive the child would never develop perseverance. So our culture, refuses to accept that a better day is coming. We cry out and hope our outburst will alleviate our suffering and disappointment. The child survives the parent’s slight by recognizing and accepting that circumstances will improve. The secondary benefit is that the child might come to empathize with the parent’s failure. The parent never intended harm by their oversight. The child can develop a sense of grace in their misfortune.
Maybe there is value to a quiet reserved acceptance of our stance in life. Look – bad stuff happens. No one has the ability to escape all difficulty. There seems to be a value to suffering. Seems like our culture needs a little toughening up, rather than persistently tantruming like two-year olds. We could shoulder the weight of some discomfort, and possible help ourselves become stronger. Acceptance does not make the pain go away, but it clarifies what is important and helps us develop empathy for others. So grow your tolerance muscle. Accept your sorrow. It is likely your next door neighbor knows something about what you are dealing with.
Note: Severe failure by a parent is neglect and we would identify such a mismatch in the parent child relationship as abusive and for the sake of this discussion, it is not a type of failure I am referencing. Rather I would suggest that a normal part of relationships means there are going to be mismatches and disappointments in the meeting of needs. Please remember I am not referencing overt situations of assault or abuse that cause pain. Those are completely different circumstances that require swift and clear boundaries to protect the innocent parties from any injury.