What’s the difference between acceptance and letting go? 

While both acceptance and letting go are verbs, there is a qualitative difference between them. Acceptance feels more like allowing or surrendering, and letting go seems to be a more active process.

Depending on your history and personality, one may seem easier than the other. It’s interesting to play with your reactions to these different words to see what they evoke in you. Whichever one you choose, it allows you to be more fully engaged with life as it is rather than how you would like it to be.

Of course, when we speak of accepting and letting go, we’re almost always referring to things we find challenging to release. It’s easy to let go of something you don’t want, but it’s incredibly difficult to relinquish something you think you should have or you convinced yourself you can’t live without.

It might be a physical capacity, person, job, part of your identity, or even a yet unrealized dream of your future that is no longer possible. These can all be enormously difficult to navigate emotionally and cognitively, as it is incredibly hard to make peace with something you don’t want.

Yet, the alternative is even more torturous. As long as we resist reality, we suffer. That suffering can feel unrelenting and, even, unbearable. Thankfully, a feeling is not a fact. We can all bear what we don’t like.

For most people, it’s necessary to feel things fully before we can accept them or let them go. That process may happen quickly or it can take a lifetime. There’s no right way to process things, and pressuring yourself to get over something before you’re fully ready, before you have fully grieved its loss, can feel like an act of violence towards yourself.

The hardest part of moving towards acceptance and letting go is allowing life to have its way with you while understanding you have choices in how you respond. Giving yourself permission to feel deep disappointment and grief over not having what you wish you could, or what you may have fantasized about for years, opens the door to eventual acceptance. It takes a lot of work to actively let go of preconceived notions, especially if you thought a particular outcome was essential to your happiness. This active process of reframing what you thought was necessary into something you think you might have merely preferred, requires true grit. It usually takes a long time. Thankfully, as you surrender to what is, you find pockets of relief and peace. Eventually, you realize you have mostly, or even completely, let go of a preconceived idea that was deeply entrenched in your body, mind, and spirit, and you can truly allow life to be as it is. This opens you up to a new realm of self-acceptance and joy.

Almost everything worth changing requires patience and practice. Accepting and letting go are two of the hardest tasks we humans face. Why? Because we so passionately want what we want. But, as the Buddha said, craving and aversion are sure paths to suffering. Continuing to want what may not be possible and torturing ourselves by fruitlessly fighting reality, are often necessary experiences, at least for most people. In time, we can let go, accept and enjoy the emotional freedom that comes from surrendering to what is.

If you try to skip the unpleasant step of railing against what you don’t want because you don’t think it’s spiritually evolved, or you think you’re not acting maturely, you only slow down the entire process. That’s the ego getting in the way of your adapting to life. The ego loves feeling in control.

The good news is that every time we go through the cycle of wanting what we want, fighting the reality of not always getting it, and coming to peace with life as it is, the more skillfully and quickly we can adapt in the future. It’s almost impossible to immediately embrace life on life‘s terms; especially, when it continues to throw you curveballs. Be kind to yourself and allow a period of adjustment when you go from your preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be to how they actually are. And, remember, it might take years to get there.

There are some things we take to the grave. It’s perfectionistic to think we can work through and accept everything life throws at us. As I like to say, no one dies with their inbox empty. There will always be things we haven’t been able to fully assimilate or work through. That’s just part of being human. Our job is to make it safe to be exactly how we are in this moment. 

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.