Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

How to Accept the Unacceptable

Bolt of lightning

Editor’s Note:  This post responds to requests made by readers who asked me to write about accepting chronic illness like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue and facing cancer as well as other physical challenges.

Like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, my health unexpectedly took a plunge 10 years ago.  Muscle, joint, and neurological pain, gut distress, sleepless nights, fatigue, and multiple intolerances became my new companions.  At my low point, I weighed 84 pounds.

I wish I could say I embraced this change gracefully.  But, actually I fought it.  My Virgo disposition turned on my obsessive solution-seeker.  I spent most of my time in my head pouring over information in order to “fix it” instead of being present with the new me.  A tough nut, it took me considerable time – years – to accept the unacceptable.  And, I can’t even say that I’ve fully accepted it now, but I feel more at peace with it.

There will come a time in your life when the unacceptable arrives, too. That’s just how life is.  The unwanted might appear as a serious illness, cheating spouse, job termination, death of a loved one, or in one of countless other possible ways. As much as you might try – like me – you cannot escape undesirable changes.  But, if you’re willing to work consciously with whatever comes, the pain will gradually soften and you can find great strength in your vulnerability.

Here are some of my hard-won insights from living with chronic illness, which may also be relevant to other types of unexpected change that occurs.  Let me warn you, none of what I share will be easy.  You’ll probably want to cling to the past or a better future. I fully understand.  But, I have every confidence that with time you’ll embrace the journey – your journey – that has been placed in front of you.

1. Expect the Unexpected

It’s basic human nature to want to be happy and to avoid suffering.  We almost can’t help but want a life that flows smoothly from one positive event to another though our own experience shows us otherwise.

This illusion of positive constancy dominates our expectations. Even when trouble besets us, we hold out for that happy ending as subtle as the wish might be.  This view along with the belief we’re in control sets us up for a big fall because it’s a fabricated illusion not in line with reality as it is.

Is there another way to subvert this subtle resistance to the unwanted, which only adds more angst to an already messy lot?  Pema Chodron suggests you can find healing when you step out of the illusion and make space for the ever-changing nature of life:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

When we’re hit by illness, tragedy, or loss, a significant measure of our suffering comes from not wanting it to be so.  Yet the suffering of old age, sickness, and death are an inescapable part of life.

Proactively coming to peace with impermanence can help you accept the unwanted with greater equanimity.  An intellectual understanding of impermanence, however, is not enough.  So, everyday, set aside quiet time to reflect upon the way everything is constantly changing:  the flowers bloom and die, the seasons change, a new store opens where another has closed.  Countless examples of impermanence surround us so just take a look at the world as it really is.

This might sound depressing at first, but impermanence actually makes everything possible.  And, isn’t it better to acclimate ourselves in small doses to the way life really is rather than to be shattered when a big change comes to pass?

Appreciating impermanence may not fully take away the sting of tragedy or loss. But, it can soften it, provide perspective, open your heart (because you are never alone in your pain), and provide the resilience you need to carry on.

2.  The 5 Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined five stages of grief that commonly occur when you are faced with an impending death or any type of catastrophic loss, including disease, chronic illness, divorce, job termination, and so on.

The fives stages of grief include:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The stages can occur in any order, you may move back and forth through the different stages, and not everyone will experience every stage.  Elana Miller, MD describes the fluidity perfectly in relation to her own bout with cancer in her post called The Second Wave.

Knowing this framework allows you to see that you’re going through a normal human process of grief that itself will change and eventually lessen unless you get stuck in one of the stages or move back and forth between unresolved emotions.  Therefore, you can be patient with wherever you are, knowing that change and the process of grief takes time.

Be sure to grieve what you have lost, whether it’s your good health or a loved one.  Acknowledge each stage as it visits and use skillful means to work with it like journaling, art, dance, meditation, the support of a friend, group, or therapist.  Instead of pushing the emotions away, be present with them and you’ll find they gradually dissolve.

It’s not easy to come to acceptance.  No wonder it’s the last stage in the Kubler-Ross’s model.  At first, acceptance may feel impossible. So don’t expect yourself to prematurely leap right there.

You can find relief by simply accepting your non-acceptance for now.  Make an aspiration to one day be able to accept your situation full stop.  Aspiration is powerful.  Keep repeating your wish without clinging to it too strongly and eventually it will even come to pass.

Seek professional help if you get stuck in one of the stages of grief and feel unable to move forward.  You need not suffer endlessly.

3.  Be Compassionate Towards Yourself

Undesired change can be painful and a spectrum of emotions will indeed arise – not just the primary ones outlined in the 5 Stages of Grief.  You deserve compassion as much as anyone else in this world.  And, you can give it to yourself.

Do not fight against pain; do not fight against irritation or jealousy. Embrace them with great tenderness, as though you were embracing a little baby. Your anger is yourself, and you should not be violent toward it. The same thing goes for all your emotions.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Whatever emotions arise, send some loving kindness to then, to yourself.  Loving kindness is extremely important because it is the antidote to fear and anger, can transform other challenging emotions, and can have a powerful impact on your relationship to yourself and others.

Change is yet another opportunity to learn to work effectively with your emotions so they no longer overwhelm you with agonizing suffering or a subtle, but constant sense of dissatisfaction.

These articles will help you learn how to embrace yourself in the cocoon of loving kindness you so deserve and need.

Understandably, the process of loving kindness will bring up uncomfortable feelings itself.  More beautiful grist for the mill.

4.  Discover What You Can Do

Life is different now. In the case of debilitating illness, we often try to keep living the same life or close to it.  Usually, that means staying busy, which keeps you from feeling your feelings, too.  But, that won’t be realistic with a chronic illness or taxing treatment regime.  You’ll just exhaust yourself and may exacerbate your condition.

Indeed, your illness may be calling you to examine your life to date.  Has it really been a good fit for you?  Have you been working like a fanatic?  This the time to pause and look at what may have needed to change.

  • What do you need to scale back?
  • Would simplifying your life help?
  • What can you do?
  • What can’t you do?
  • Is there something different you can do?

Instead of boxing yourself in due to new limitations, try to think outside the box.

  • Tammy Strobel gradually healed her grief after the death of her step-father by taking pictures of her morning view, which she recently published in her book:  My Morning View:  An iPhone Photography Project about Gratitude, Grief, and Good Coffee. (affiliate link)
  • Although Laren Hillebrand struggles with debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she wrote the award-winning book turned moved, Sea Biscuit:  An American Legend.  Mostly housebound, she said she lived vicariously through recording this true story. (affiliate link)
  • In Buddhist lore, the nun Palmo contracted leprosy, but she was able to devote herself to the practice of Avolokitesvara, the buddha of compassion and attain supreme accomplishment.

At the same time, your worth doesn’t depend on being materially productive.  More important than anything practical you can do in this world, what will really matter when you die is whether you’ve cultivated a positive mind and expressed kindness to anyone you meet.

Even though Sara from Gitzen Girl experienced constant pain and discomfort due to severe Ankylosing Spondilities, she made a conscious decision to choose joy, gratitude, and happiness. Here’s her simple formula:

Of course, it’s not easy to choose joy when you’re in pain.  But it becomes easier through dedicated practice.  Sara’s joy was contagious.  It transformed her own experience and made a remarkable difference in other peoples’ lives.

5.  This Is Your Journey, This Is Your Life

Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.”   – Isak Dinesen

Whatever is happening right now is your opportunity for deep healing so please don’t step away from it. Look directly and ask, “What can I learn here?  Life doesn’t necessarily turn out how we expect, but it gives us what we need to grow.

There were so many things that I needed to learn.  My illness brought them all to the forefront, one by one, pushing me to keep growing.  I learned:

  • To stop projecting my anger outwardly.
  • Difficult people can be my opportunity to practice compassion.
  • It doesn’t matter what other people think about me and it certainly isn’t worth getting mad at them about it.
  • To find my own answers.
  • To relax more.
  • It’s essential to take responsibility for my stress level.

This may not be the life you expected, but it’s yours now so use it as your path of transformation and become the best possible you.

There are no easy answers to facing chronic illness or other undesirable changes.  There’s just you and the willingness to look within, work with your own mind, and transform your emotions.


I’m now a healthy weight and no longer have chronic pain unless I overstep my dietary restrictions.

Recently, I learned one part of my physical challenges have resulted from active genetic polymorphisms on the methylation cycle.  These types of mutations are not uncommon in fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, neuro-immune disease, and cardiovascular disorders.  I’m learning how to by-pass the mutations to some degree using diet and a carefully tuned supplement regime.

I haven’t had a miracle healing.  My life is limited, you won’t see me hopping on a plane, but I feel better and can do more than I could 10 years ago.  I also know that however I’m feeling in this moment is impermanent, and I won’t expect it to stay the same.

What have your learned from the challenges in your life?  How do you feel about unexpected change?

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra


Good Links for a Happy Life: From Overwhelm to Complete


How I Became a Buddhist and What It Really Means


  1. Sandra, this is such a great post that will help so many people. The one thing that I always try to remind myself is that change is constant and even though I assume I know what’s going to happen tomorrow, I really don’t. We get so stuck in feeling that everything must be a certain way in order to be happy, but that’s not true, either!

    • Thank you, Charlotte! I think you have a great approach: keeping impermanence fresh in your mind. We are funny creatures, aren’t we? But, you’ve gained some important wisdom so you can find happiness even when things aren’t the way you expected. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  2. Very beautiful, Sandra, and very relevant to my emotional/spiritual journey right now. It’s a challenge to live for now, and not to yearn for the past or live for a dream future.

    • Hi Bethany,

      It is challenging, isn’t it? Sometimes those wishes will come up. I don’t think we should be hard on ourselves at all if we do. We just don’t want to tally too long there!

  3. Jean Sampson

    Although there is a level of acceptance that I have attained, I still try to find “the answers” to the things that “need fixing” in my body. I guess that I have always been someone who, when presented with a problem. always got busy finding some way to deal with it. It is really difficult for me to just let things “be” but as I get older I find that there are lots of things I can do nothing about. I hope that I will be able to be a little less disturbed by the things that happen as I get older. I guess you will have to keep reminding me what is possible and that it is ok to quit trying to fix the unfixable 🙂

    • Dear Jean,

      I think it’s a great quality to be a problem solver, Jean! But, as you say, there are something we can’t fix and then our challenge is find peace with them. It’s ironic because now that I have the information to address my illness – to a degree – aging is upon me and will have other surprises in store! We’ll remind each other. 🙂

  4. Like Bethany – I, right now, am also having a tough time spiritually, physically and mentally. For the last few weeks I’ve been in quite a funk. I have chronic fatigue and fibro. The pain is bad, but the fatigue is much worse. I also lost my beloved 37 yr. old daughter (Dawn) a little over 2 years ago (heart condition). It’s been a tough 2-3 years for me, my older daughter and my grandchildren (5 – ages: 22, 19, 15, 13 and 12). Shortly after their Mom passed, my 3 youngest grandchildren lost their home during Superstorm Sandy. All the contents were gone in an instant – not unlike the passing of my sweet daughter. I spoke to her the day before (I lived in Fl. then and she was in Jersey) and the next morning she passed. She was fine. Only thing she complained of was ‘fatigue’. No one knew how badly her heart was damaged.

    I’m back in Jersey now. Moving was stressful. That sounds stupid, considering all the rest of the losses and stresses – but my therapist (who I speak with 2 times a month) – reminds often that the last few years have been tough for me – not just because of losing Dawn. I didn’t want to move, but couldn’t afford the taxes on my home in Jersey anymore. Raised my two daughters alone – and I never remarried. My family, work, my dogs and my cat were all that I had energy for once the fibro hit.

    Now that I’m here in Jersey I can’t do what I used to be able to do (for my grandchildren). I live alone in a mobile home. I’ve had to downsize. Gave most of my furniture to my 3 youngest grandchildren (and their father), but it was all gone after the storm.

    I ‘want’ (keep wanting – which is what is frustrating me, I know) to be able to do what I used to do for my children and grandchildren – but I am so exhausted. I hate being this way. The grandchildren don’t really need me as much (friends are priorities now and I’m happy for them), but it doesn’t matter because I feel helpless anyway. Feeling useless – and empty inside. As if losing my daughter caused my mind and body to lose all their energy, focus and light-heartedness.

    Anyway – reading your post re-awakened ‘something’ within me. I am trying, very hard, to accept my inability to do what I like to do (want to do) – but that is not easy for me to do. The stages of ‘loss of a loved one’ are so true. I am between the last 2 stages. I feel the heartache, but am learning that it passes – that I can either choose to dwell on the sadness and cry for hours – or I can breathe in deeply and wish my daughter peace and wellness – and let the heartache drift slowly away. The crying will not bring her back to me. And I wind up with a terrible headache and feel even worse sometimes after I cry.

    I’m going to re-read your post a few times and check out the book you referenced (about Chronic Fatigue).

    Thank you for always expressing yourself so eloquently. You write simply, directly and for the sole purpose of helping to remind all of us that there is a way out of the suffering – – no matter how much we are hurting.

    With love and gratitude,

    • Dear Sandy,

      You really have been through so much and you truly seem to have moved to a better place with your grief as challenging as it has been.

      I’m glad my post reawakened something for you. I know it’s not easy to accept debilitating fatigue and to let go of wanting to do all that you would like to do. I’m a real “wanter” that way too. Sometimes, when we let go though, a new way appears.

      Most importantly, I want you to know that you are not useless and that your worth doesn’t depend on accomplishing things. Your experience and insight itself is of value and I’m sure it will benefit anyone reading your comment. I value and appreciate you!

      Thanks for your kind words, Sandy. It helps to know my writing makes a difference for you. I hope your able to regain at least some of your health and discover more brightness in your days.

  5. Lily

    Thank you so much for your beautiful posts! I feel so blessed to have found your writing. I am experiencing emotional pain and grieving that I’ve blocked for years. Acceptance and lovingkindness have become my primary practices! Your posts help me gain perspective on what’s happening to me. Your words are gentle and filled with kindness. This post has helped me today as I experience the changes that aging bring. Instead of fighting my pain and my feelings, I can be present with tenderness for myself.

    • Dear Lily,

      I’m so sorry for all your pain, which can really feel like a flood if it’s been blocked for many years. Loving kindness is a beautiful practice and I know it will help you tremendously. I love hearing how you’re open to being present with tenderness for yourself!

  6. Hi Sandra,

    First of all, let me tell you the new look of your site is very appealing but the warm welcome has been pushed down!!

    This article has filled me with more emotions than you mention here…my heart goes out to all those who suffer from such pains, which makes us almost helpless, we can just wait and hope, just wonder why we have been the chosen ones, why HE has put us to such a test. The story of Sandy has moved me down to cathartic level…she is so right, nobody needs us when we are in such a situation. Isn’t it disheartening that the children and grandchildren whom we love so much , look away when it is their turn to do something for the old and the invalid?

    I am glad you are in better health now and despite that you have been writing such inspiring and positive articles, never revealing the pain that you have almost vanquished.But isn’t that life? Full of change and challenges? Wont it be so boring if spring goes on forever? we would be deprived of the beauties associated with the change of seasons! Life also has various seasons…only if we welcome them with smiles and open arms and let it flow as it wants to! Yes, some phases are very very difficult…but they leave us stronger and wiser.

    • Dear Balroop, You are such a sensitive and compassionate person! Yes, sometimes it does all seem too much, but when we are able to work with and transform our suffering into compassion, perspective, and love it brings a new day. I love your metaphor for the many seasons of life because this is just how it is. Thanks for your sympathetic words too.

      Thanks for your feedback on my blog design. It’s an important point and I’m thinking about this! Thank you.

  7. Darling Sandra,

    I’m beyond words after reading this post…I had no idea you went through so much. I truly admire your courage and am so so happy that you are fine now.
    I did have a gist of all the health restrictions…but for so long…I had no idea….You are a brave courageous soul.

    All I can say about so many of my challenges, is that they have come to literally knock some sense into me. I have learned so much from life and its experiences that I think we each could have a few dozen Phds in the learning from challenges department. Many are conscious of the change they need to make, to overcome those challenges…while there are many who are unaware.

    May we all have the conscious sensibilities to learn from our challenges.

    You know how much I love and admire you…Thank you for sharing your story here. I just know this will touch many hearts…and offer solace to so many out there.

    Much Love,

    • Dear Zeenat,

      I love your perspective that the challenges have “literally” knocked some sense into you. It’s so true, isn’t it? And working with the challenges consciously makes all the difference between being thrown up against the wall many more times or really learning and moving through. So I resonate your aspiration that we may all develop conscious sensibilities.

      Thank you for your love and support, Zeenat. Our connection goes ways back now, doesn’t it? Love you tons too.

  8. Hello; This was an exhaustive and complex post. I feel like I have already gone through most of what you decried here. I found out i had sleep apnea and was treated for it. that gave me the focus to try to do something about my weight and the accompanying diseases of high blood pressure and borderline diabetes. I realized the place i was working was not for me any more and started my own business. I eventually had gastric surgery and have lost over half my body weight. I am now one of the most positive and upbeat people you will meet. I see good in most people and situations. and i am starting to come to terms with the fact that doing all this as a blind person makes me an inspiration. who knows what tomorrow will bring next. thanks for sharing your journey and take care, Max

    • That’s incredible, Max! What huge changes you’ve been through. It’s so inspiring to know that we can become a positive and upbeat person if we put our mind to it. Your story is certainly proof to that fact. You seem to have an enormous amount of clarity. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  9. Sandra,

    This is such a powerful post. Thank you for sharing. xo.


  10. This is a post to bookmark as theres so much in it and I know it would be good for me to re-visit as things come up and when I need a bit of hand holding and comfort. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Seana for your kind words and taking a moment to share. I’m glad you find the post comforting and feel you can come back for more hand-holding. I’m all for that!

  11. Thank you for sharing your own journey through this, it makes it so much more real to me when I can feel your story. I am three months into grieving the loss of my mum after several years of declining and debilitating health issues. I’ve struggled to make, find, and keep peace, balance, and center. I’m looking towards what makes me life healthy for me and seeking out the ways and means to make that my reality and focusing on the miracle of the moment and the lessons presented within them. Thank you for the gentle reminder that it is a process and the importance of self care.

    • Dear Crystal,

      I’m so sorry for your loss. I know it’s not easy and I’m inspired that you are looking towards what keeps you healthy and in the moment. I’m glad my post served a s a gentle reminder for you.

  12. I love this SO SO much. I teach the same approach and I’m so passionate about the freedom from suffering that is possible through acceptance and self-compassion. I’ve shared and will save this post as a resource for my clients. x

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Naomi. I’m so happy the post resonated for you and might be a good resources for you clients. Wishing you well!

  13. Sandra, this post is so helpful. I read it on publishing day and wanted to comment. But then I spent so much time thinking about it, that I forgot to let you know how wonderful and relaxing your words are. Your blog is the only one I know that faces the truth about the things that could happen in ones life. If we like it or not. And offers solutions how to deal with this challenges on a higher level to find inner peace. Thank you so much for honesty.

    • Your so welcome, Andrea. This is really my training in Buddhism that is expressing itself. I wouldn’t know how to be any other way because I’ve had the good fortune to learn that the world is not exactly they way we pretend it to be! Freedom begins when we embrace the way the world really is. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so happy for our connection.

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