A few weeks ago, a coaching client asked me, “What is the difference between acceptance and resignation?”

What a great question!

We hear a lot about the importance of acceptance for people who are facing hard situations—a diagnosis, a loss, or some other painful situation that is outside their own control. But my client pinpointed something important: there can be a fine line between acceptance, a healthy response which can help us move on with our lives, and resignation, a mental state that can lead us to become psychologically stuck.

Resignation grows out of feelings of powerlessness and defeat. A person who is resigned to the situation feels incapable of moving forward or making positive change. Resignation is a passive response to a difficult event or circumstance.

Strong emotions provide us with information that can help us adapt, survive, and move forward. For example, fear alerts us to a threat, prompting us to take steps to address the hazard. Anger prompts us to deal with a situation that feels unfair or hurtful.

Resignation involves a level of emotional numbing. This numbing leaves us unable to read our own emotional signals or recognize the parts of the situation that we can control. Psychologist Christy O’Shoney says when we are resigned to a situation “we miss out on the valuable information embedded in our feelings.” Resignation often leads us to surrender our right to feel and forego seeking emotional support.

On the other hand, acceptance is an active state. Like resignation, acceptance involves   seeing the reality of a hard situation. To borrow the words of poet Mark Nepo, acceptance is “the quietly courageous act of feeling what is ours to feel and facing what is ours to face.”[i] Accepting a painful circumstance means acknowledging what we are feeling in that moment and treating ourselves with compassion even as we move forward to cope with the new reality.  Acceptance involves taking the energy we might have spent in struggle and emotional numbing and using it to decide the best way to respond.

A diagnosis of a chronic disease is a useful concrete example of how acceptance and resignation play out differently. Suppose that you have been diagnosed with Type II diabetes, a chronic disease that can be disabling or life-threatening if it is not managed. A person resigned to the diagnosis may surrender to feelings of hopelessness, telling herself “I’m going to die from this disease, and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well give up.” A resigned person will often continue the sedentary behavior and poor eating habits that helped bring on the disease.

On the other hand, a person who faces the diagnosis with acceptance will recognize the danger of the disease. She will acknowledge her fear, sadness, and anger at the way diabetes will change her life. She will treat herself with compassion, and part of that compassion will involve learning what she can do to manage the disease and then actively engaging in the hard work of developing new and healthier habits.

Acceptance requires courage and work. You have to let go of how you wish things were and undertake to move forward to live with the reality. As Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron puts it, when we practice acceptance, “we can stop struggling with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy. . . . We start by working with the monsters in our mind. Then we develop the wisdom and compassion to communicate sanely with the threats and fears of our daily life.”[ii] 

Acceptance is also a practice. It’s not a one-and-done kind of decision-making. That person newly diagnosed with diabetes may sink into resignation now and again. Acceptance requires intentional and daily decisions to control the things we can control even as we face the reality that some things in our lives will never be the same.

[i] Mark Nepo, Drinking from the River of Life: The Life of Expression (Boulder: Sounds True, 2019): 80

[ii] Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, (Boston: Shambala, 2000): 121-122.