The paradox of acceptance: How trying to avoid pain can keep us stuck

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Acceptance - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento therapist

"Acceptance lies at the heart of the change process. The patient comes to therapy out of a desire to be different; yet this very desire is the source of the patient’s pain (Safran & Muran, 2000).”

I often hear the same question in therapy. It almost always comes after a particularly emotional moment – a moment when the person comes face to face with their pain. Almost without fail, the person will ask, “So what do I do about it?”

When people ask this question, they usually mean something along the lines of, “How do I get rid of this pain?” The answer is paradoxical. In my experience, pain can’t be “gotten rid of.” It can only be felt, shared, understood, and accepted. It is by accepting pain that we are able to free ourselves from the hold it has on our lives.

Often, people avoid pain because they are afraid that accepting it means they will be stuck with it forever. Ironically, attempting to "get rid of" pain keeps us stuck in it. A colleague of mine was fond of saying, "What you resist shall persist." The stronger the pain, the more mental and emotional resources we have to recruit to keep it at bay. As a result, we have fewer resources to devote to work, love, and play. Like a person with a broken leg that was never set (and thus never healed correctly), we end up with scar tissue and decreased range of motion. Proper healing usually requires reopening old wounds.

It is commonly understood among therapists that things sometimes have to get worse before they get better. Some people come to therapy with years – decades – of their lives devoted to protecting themselves from feeling their pain. Often, they have become so good at keeping the pain out of conscious awareness that it takes careful work to sift through their many layers of defense. Even though these defenses may be, themselves, problematic (e.g. substance abuse, trust and intimacy issues, anxiety, depression, etc.), the person is usually terrified of losing them and being exposed to the original underlying pain. They are especially afraid of having to do so alone.

I am fond of using examples from movies to illustrate points, and here I think a scene from The Empire Strikes Back will do nicely. When Luke is training to become a Jedi, Yoda leads him to a cave and tells him that he must confront whatever waits for him inside. Luke asks what he will find, and Yoda replies, "Only what you take with you." Inside the cave, Luke comes face to face with his own unresolved fear, anger, and pain. He must accept that these feelings and the experiences that created them are forever a part of him. In order to be a true Jedi, he must not be in the grip of the hidden darkness that lies within him.

Sometimes, we all need a trusted guide to help us get unstuck. A good therapist can help us to face, feel, and accept our pain in order to regain lost range of motion. Like Yoda leading Luke to the cave, the process of uncovering pain and accepting that it is a part of us is made easier when done in the context of a trusting therapeutic relationship.


Safran, J.D., & Muran, J.C. (2000). Negotiating the therapeutic alliance: A relational treatment guide. New York. The Guilford Press.


What you run from only stays with you longer. When you fight something, you only make it stronger.”

– Chuck Palahniuk

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