Photo credit: Robin Higgins

Do you get pissed off in traffic or in line at the DMV? I used to too. I didn’t realize just how often I was pissed off until I wasn’t anymore. This article shows how I went from being regularly angry and frustrated to being accepting and having peace most of the time.

When I got pissed about traffic others would ask why I was so upset. I didn’t get what they were talking about. How could anyone be stuck in traffic and not be pissed off?? In my mind, traffic caused my anger. It was that simple.

12-step recovery taught me that traffic was not the problem. It was my subconscious thinking that there shouldn’t be traffic that was the problem. It’s unrealistic to expect there shouldn’t be traffic. After all, highways are for traffic! Realizing this while I was in traffic calmed me. This helped me accept the situation as it was.

The understanding that my thinking was the actual source of my problem allowed me to get rid of much of my anger and frustration. I learned to change my expectations and become accepting of whatever was happening. Not only in traffic, but in every area of my life. Today, I live with peace and serenity almost all the time.

I was fighting against reality.

I used to get pissed off about a lot of things – the cap on the toothpaste, my unreliable boss, the inequitable educational system, the corrupt political system. This is a (very) short list of examples!

I felt completely justified in my anger. I thought the problem was with those things. It turns out the root of the problem was my ideas about how these things should go. Because of those thoughts, I was fighting against reality. That fighting, that resistance to reality was the true source of my difficulties. My anger and frustration were caused by my subconscious belief that things should be different!

The really insidious part here is that I didn’t think I had any “shoulds.” When I heard that having ideas of how things “should go” leads to anger, I didn’t think that applied to me! That’s how subconscious my thoughts were. And maybe that’s true for you too.

This shift has been so profound that I went from “this toothpaste cap is ruining my life” to accepting my rental van breaking down multiple times on a 6-week solo-road trip in the fall of 2018. The van broke down so many times that I ditched it in Arizona and got a different vehicle for the rest of the trip. Yet I maintained equanimity throughout the trip.

So how did I go from “this toothpaste cap is ruining my life!!” to “my dream vacation is being spent in repair shops and that’s ok” ??? I stopped resisting what was happening. I accepted it.

Here’s how I did it.

For years I’d heard things like, “expectations are premeditated resentments.” “Emotional pain often comes from non-acceptance” and “acceptance decreases suffering.” OK, got it: Don’t have expectations. Become accepting. How do I do this? How do I not have expectations? How do I become accepting of things I see as unacceptable?? I couldn’t seem to find any guidance on the “how” part so I eventually made up a process. That process helped me to become accepting and not have expectations. Before I share the actual process, here are some tips I learned in recovery.

What 12-step recovery teaches about acceptance.

In one of my 12-step recovery programs I heard the saying, “acceptance is the answer to my problem today.” I had no idea what that meant, but I had been in recovery long enough to believe the wisdom of the program. So I listened to the wisdom of recovery and clung to the hope that this saying was true. The way I clung to it was this: the next time I got really upset, I started repeating that phrase over and over in my head. “Acceptance is the answer to my problem today… acceptance is the answer to my problem today…”

What happened was miraculous. I became calm. My heart stopped racing. This was mind-blowing to me! Here I was in the same exact situation – the circumstances had not changed, but I had. I was calm. Whoa!

How could that be?? If traffic was the source of my problem (as I believed), how could I be in traffic and not be pissed off? This taught me that it was my thoughts about traffic that were the source of my problem. More accurately, my thought that there shouldn’t be traffic was causing me to resist the fact that there was traffic. I was fighting against the reality of traffic. And I was losing.

What changed was the focus of my mind. I shifted the focus of my mind to the phrase “acceptance is the answer to my problem today.” The calmness that came over me showed me very clearly that the situation was not the problem. It was what was going on in my mind that was the source of the problem.

Here’s another little tidbit about traffic while I’m at it. I’ve learned that when I’m on time, everyone else is driving fine. When I leave late and expect to be on time, I get pissed off! So I learned to leave on time, and expect highways to have traffic!

Acceptance is the simple act of going through what is facing you, be it pain, anger, despair or hopelessness, as opposed to resisting it. The more I practiced acceptance, the easier it got. I still sometimes have to say to myself, “Barb, this is what’s happening” to insert myself back into reality instead of living in my fantasy of how reality “should” be. The result is that I’m no longer tied to the outcome of situations the way I used to be.

Here’s the other neat trick about this whole process. I discovered that I could learn to be accepting of circumstances after the fact and it still worked! Once I realize I’m upset about something, I examine my thinking. If I had an expectation like, “He should have said thank you” then I need to un-expect that in my mind. I’m not going to let someone else’s rudeness ruin my serenity!

Repetition matters.

By repeatedly reminding myself of all I learned about acceptance, I started accepting situations as they arose. The more I did that, the more accepting I became of things before they even happened. It was quite an awakening. I’m reminded of another saying in recovery about how to avoid being upset when things don’t go your way: don’t have “a way.”

If you think about the repetition I’m talking about here, it makes sense. I needed to repeat those phrases to myself for them to take effect. And I have to repeatedly practice acceptance. Acceptance happens slowly over time. It’s like creating a path in a field by walking the same way many times. Every time you walk the path it gets easier. Eventually, there’s a well-worn path in the grass with no resistance. Every time you practice acceptance toward something, it gets easier. Eventually, you come to accept things without any resistance.

Change your thinking to stop the struggle.

I’m not suggesting you like, want, or support whatever it is that you’re learning to accept. But by struggling against reality, resisting or rejecting it, you create anger, frustration and resentment. This also prevents you from changing circumstances that are under your control.

By learning what’s going on in your subconscious mind and changing those thoughts, even after the fact, you can change your experience. You can learn to accept things that you formerly thought were unacceptable. And you can have peace.