Esprit Consulting


Acceptance through discomfort: Lessons from an ice cube

That’s not just a title to catch your eye. It’s an invitation to give it a go. Get a couple of ice cubes from your freezer, place them in the palm of your hands and form a gentle fist. Now continue to hold them for three minutes or more.

Notice your reaction as times passes. What is going on in your mind?

You may notice a narrative something like this: “Ouch, this is starting to hurt…………how long have I got left…………I want this to stop………who came up with this silly exercise anyway…………I can’t do this…………I’m out……….”

The inevitable response to this type of thinking is to drop the ice cube and make the discomfort stop. And that’s a very natural response; our brains are wired to make us move away from discomfort and towards comfort. It’s a survival mechanism.

However, life is not as simple as an ice cube. Sometimes uncomfortable stuff happens, and we can’t opt out of it. Not everything is as controllable as we’d like it to be.

In the face of something we’d rather not be happening, we basically have three options:

  1. Do something to change it.
  2. Walk away from it.
  3. Accept it.

The first option, I love. It encompasses a sense of agency, learning and regaining control. Yet it’s not always possible. A favourite mantra that a coaching client gifted to me is to ‘control the controllables’. It helps me channel my energy into those things I can shift for the better. Implicit in the mantra though is an understanding that not all things are within my control to change.

And that’s when the next two options come into play. If I can walk away from the discomfort without a negative consequence for myself or others, that becomes an appealing option. If I can’t do that, acceptance is my only other option.

Yet we fight acceptance. We push back. We complain. On a small scale, I catch myself doing this regularly with the household chores. I get the laundry done but I’m often heard grumbling about it. On a larger scale, I regularly hear a girlfriend complaining about her ex-husband’s behaviour. Does the complaining change anything? Not at all. In fact, if anything, it worsens the situation, creating a pit of negative emotion and self-pity that amplifies the issues.

In her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach invites us to ask the question: “What would it be like if I could accept life–accept this moment–exactly as it is?”. That’s a powerful question that invites us to embrace acceptance, however imperfect the outcome may be.

Imperfection is a natural part of life. We know that but we fight against it, telling ourselves we’re not good enough; we should have done better; life should treat us better. In doing so, we waste a great deal of energy, undermine our confidence, and limit our potential for positive impact.

Instead, we have the choice to gracefully accept that which we cannot change. It’s not easy but we do have the choice.

So, rather than resisting the discomfort that the ice cubes present, have a go at accepting it. Notice the sensations but don’t try to change them. Acknowledge that it is your body signalling external stimuli and be curious rather than resistant. And then take this mindset to those other areas of your life where controlling the situation is not an option. As Tara Brach eloquently puts it, “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”

Esprit Consulting is a boutique leadership and organisational development consultancy that works across industries to cultivate engaging cultures and high performance.

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