The qualities we bring to the occupational hazards of our clinical work have profound implications for our emotional, mental, physical, relational, and spiritual health.
This post is all about how acceptance and gratitude together reduce burnout and promote resilience. These companion practices can give us the confidence to handle so much of what comes our way.
The Art and Skill of Gratitude
Research on gratitude has skyrocketed in recent years. We now know (although many of us already knew) that practicing appreciation and thankfulness can do seemingly miraculous things for us and our relationships.
The practice of gratitude is all about tipping our appreciation hat to what already is, for the “gifts” that have been bestowed upon us by others and the world, and for the big and little positive facts in our lives.
We can practice turning toward any fact, situation, person, or even memory with thankfulness of some kind, even if that “thing” doesn’t feel gratitude-worthy.
Benefits of Gratitude
Practicing gratitude (even for as little as 2 weeks) has been shown to reduce physical symptoms, enhance emotional wellness, and promote a deeper, more fulfilled, and dare I say happier existence.
(I once did a collaborative gratitude practice with two colleagues via email. After only about 2 weeks, I started to feel much happier and more appreciative of life in general. When I stopped practicing, I stopped feeling these feelings. Hmm, note to self: keep practicing 🙂 ).
The Art and Skill of Acceptance
Acceptance is seemingly the opposite of gratitude. At the very least it’s not about that same warm appreciation and thankfulness for the beautiful sky or the random kindness of a stranger.
Rather, acceptance is all about practicing the craft of seeing clearly exactly what is in front and in back of us, what is swirling or hiding inside of us, and what we simply don’t want to acknowledge.
It’s about the process of gently turning toward the (sometimes harsh) realities of a situation and practicing coming to terms with them.
The qualities of curiosity and non-judgment are so important to integrate into the art of acceptance. In fact, practicing acceptance without these qualities may not actually look or feel like acceptance. But that’s for you to mindfully evaluate for yourself.
A quick but important word on what acceptance is not. It’s not about passive resignation or giving up. When someone tells us that “we just have to accept this or that”, we likely feel dismayed and like we have to just give in and let the beast eat us alive.
(These misconceptions, by the way, are the most common reactions I hear when teaching mindfulness to my local community).
Benefits of Acceptance
Acceptance works to release the (grip of) resentment, guilt, anger, and other afflictive emotions. These emotions are well-known to inhibit moving forward in productive and positive ways. Acceptance helps us see what trees are in front us of us and then allows us to map a safe and productive course through the forest.
However, when we are in the grip of seeing things as we want (or don’t want) to see things (Aka, ego), we automatically and quite rapidly get in our own (and others’) way.
Professionally, we might have a client with whom we haven’t made the progress we would have hoped for. Maybe this client tells us rather bluntly that the therapy isn’t working. And if we stay held in that initial reaction of “well that’s because you aren’t doing the work you should be doing”, then we stay stuck in ego and automatically create an unhealthy distance between them and us. We might also start to feel an insidiously accumulating emotional depletion if this lack of acceptance continues or expands.
Acceptance of this situation would be expressed as the process of gradually seeing and experiencing exactly what has happened. The client has felt the same thing you have – therapy isn’t progressing as you both would like. This turning of mind and heart may open up so many doors, beyond what we might have even expected in that moment.
Moreover, coming to terms with what is may even then allow for gratitude to be practiced much more easily. So let’s move on to that specific benefit.
Acceptance and Gratitude Together Reduce Burnout, Promote Resilience
I would (gently) argue that acceptance can quite powerfully pave the path for gratitude to walk more freely. Where acceptance flows, gratitude can grow.
Try it in the opposite direction.
Take a moment to reflect on a really tough client interaction you’ve had recently. Now tighten the grip of ego. Try to demand in your own mind that you were right. Or that the reality of the situation was something other than it was. Or that you don’t want to come to terms with what is.
Now try orienting toward that same situation with gratitude. Be thankful for that client and your work with him or her. Be appreciative that that interaction taught you something.
Hmm. I know I’m already feeling more detached from that client as I tried this mind-heart experiment. Gratitude gets more choked up and isn’t allowed to flow as easily.
Integration of Acceptance and Gratitude into Your Clinical Work
So how do we really harness the companion practices of acceptance and gratitude to help us reduce risk of burnout and to cultivate greater resilience?
- Reflect on your caseload as it currently is. What client contact, situations, conflicts, tensions, realities can be turned toward purposefully with a greater degree of acceptance? Be as concrete and specific as you can so that acceptance has a chance to be directly applied to something your emotions are already linked to.
The following language may help. “Ok, so this is what this is. I am trying to see this situation for what it is. I have been resisting what I don’t like or don’t want to have happen. I don’t have to like it or agree with it, but I need to see it as clearly and honestly as possible to get out of my own and my client’s way.“
See if you experience any release or opening from this stance of acceptance. (The physical pose of open palms may facilitate this process even more). You can practice this after or before seeing a client, when consulting with your peers, or when simply thinking about your clinical work.
- If you have practiced acceptance of a particular situation, see if you can begin to conjure up any sentiments or words of gratitude about that situation. Is there anything at all for which you can thank yourself, the situation, or the other parties involved? It can be very small, almost imperceptible.
For example, earlier that day you may have noticed the quickening of your breath as your client expressed anger toward you. You might appreciate that you actively practiced mindful observation of your own felt sense of your client’s anger.
Your mindful observation of your body can go a very long way in helping you stay present to your own emotional experiences, in the midst of and outside of the context of your client’s emotions.
The direct personal benefit here might be that you may be less likely to unconsciously turn that anger toward your family when you head home for the day. In essence, your appreciation of your own mindful observation might actually help your mind-body productively let go of that experience.
- Step back from specific clinical experiences to unveil your professional life as a whole. How can you turn toward your experience as a therapist with either acceptance, gratitude, or both?
What do you feel you truly need to accept – to gently and curiously come to terms with and to see clearly what is directly in front of you? Is it your commute? Is it something you are doing that doesn’t resonate with your deeper values? Is it the support and collegiality that you so desire but don’t have?
Instead of passing this by because it’s too difficult to acknowledge, allow yourself the opportunity to see and feel it clearly, for what it is. Then practice allowing yourself the chance to contemplate a new course of action if needed.
Finally, what can you be grateful for in your professional life?
Is it the very short commute you have? (I live only 12 minutes from my office, and this is a godsend for my peace of mind).
Is it the opportunity to help clients in a meaningful way? (And maybe it’s not all of your clients but many of them).
Are you grateful for the chance to enhance your clinical acumen through continuing professional development?
Are you thankful that you are awake to the wonders of our profession and the opportunities we have been given to truly change people’s lives?
Please leave a comment below and let The Thriving Therapist community know about how acceptance and gratitude are part of your professional life. What are the joys and challenges of these practices? *(As always please respect confidentiality when you post your comments 🙂
With immense gratitude,