How To Accept What You Can't Change

When it comes to life lessons, I’d say the Rolling Stones hit the nail on the head.

You can’t always get what you want. 

Unfortunately, there’s no way around it: we are bound to encounter experiences in life that we don’t want and can’t change. No matter how many self-help books we read, how many hours we spend meditating, how much therapy we get, or how many new outfits we buy… we can’t control life.

Of course, the way we think and act can certainly have meaningful influence on certain aspects of our lives. And trust me, I’m all for practices of self-inquiry and growth. But ultimately, life will do what it does. It doesn’t follow our agenda. It’s fluid. It’s mysterious.

What I’m saying here isn’t new. We all know this. (Heck, it’s the chorus of one of the most popular rock and roll songs of all time!)  We also know that the sooner we accept life as it is, the happier we’ll be. As a favorite meme of mine says: “Relax. Nothing is under control.”

Yet somehow, in those challenging moments—when what we wanted to happen doesn’t happen, when we’re distraught or disappointed or devastated, when our dreams are dashed or our sense of hope is shaken to its core—relaxing is the last thing we tend to do.

I’ll speak for myself. My first response is often to resist. And I’m pretty good at resisting. It’s a skill I (and most of us) have been developing for years.

For me, resistance has two main paths:

Path #1: Trying to control or manipulate the situation. Performing, proving myself, working harder.  Demanding what I want. Not taking “no” for an answer. Trying to be better: more charming, more intelligent, more perfect, etc.

Where It Leads

At first, this path gives me an immediate sense of control. Over time, though, this path usually leads to burnout, low self-esteem, insecurity, and collapse. And ultimately, I miss out on my own authenticity; my true self is clouded by all my attempts to be “perfect” and “in control.”

Path #2: Denial. Talking myself out of my feelings. Telling myself why I’m better off this way, why it’s okay, why I shouldn’t care. Becoming a victim. Telling myself why I don’t deserve this, or why I do; why it’s someone else’s fault, or mine. Asserting my superiority, why I am better-than. 

Where It Leads

At first, this path offers me an escape from the pain and an easy way to make sense of my experience. Over time, however, this path usually leads to shame, blame, numbing out, shutting down, and sometimes even revenge. And ultimately, I lose the opportunity to access my own aliveness (feelings) and integrate the valuable learning from my experience.

Now, I want to be clear about something. I don’t think these paths are wrong or bad. I actually believe they are both completely innocent, logical attempts to make sense of difficult circumstances and find security in the midst of challenge. I’d even go so far as to say that I’m grateful for these paths. Thank goodness they have been there to offer me some semblance of support as I’ve made my way through tough times!

The thing is, despite their positive intention, these paths simply don’t lead me where I want to go. They don’t lead me toward true acceptance. They don’t bring me back to my heart, or help me cultivate greater strength and aliveness. Essentially, they lead to a dead end.

Luckily, there is a middle path.

This middle path is different. In this path, I choose to slow down. I breathe. I listen to my body. I open myself to become curious about what I feel, holding a fierce commitment to offer myself compassion for my feelings, regardless of what they are or whether they make sense to me. I remind myself that the thing I wanted (even though I didn’t get it) is precious to me, and that what is precious to me matters, because I matter. I choose to be gentle with myself—to resist making myself wrong for what I wanted, and instead appreciate myself for having longings, because my longings are what lets me know that I’m alive. I honor the beauty in what I wanted. I grieve that I didn’t get it.

This path is not easy. It requires vulnerability and courage; softness and grit. Yet this is the path I trust. I trust it because I like where it leads me. It leads me to wholeness, acceptance, truth and authenticity. It leads me to self-love, to my own power. It leads me to freedom.

The Rolling Stones are right. I can’t always get what I want. But I can walk the middle path. I can stay open. I can let myself feel and be human.

And that, ironically, is all I really want.