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drawing of avoidance vs. acceptance

❝Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is.❞ -Tara Brach

The old saying is that there's no point crying over spilled milk. The point is that it's a waste of time and energy to be upset over something that can't be undone. Once the milk spilled, time spent being angry at it spilling, sad about how much milk was lost, or any other time spent wishing it didn't happen is a waste. That's time that can't be spent fixing the problem you now find yourself facing.

The idea of spilled milk is related to the economic concept of sunk cost, which states that once you've incurred a cost, it cannot be recovered and thus shouldn't be relevant to future decisions. The classic example is textbooks in college. Once you spend $150 on a textbook, that money is now sunk - you shouldn't attach any value to $150 when deciding whether to keep the book or sell it back to the bookstore for $35. The $150 is sunk, so your decision is whether you prefer to keep the book or have $35.

So, whether you see the world through spilled milk or sunk costs, the trick to making better decisions for the future comes down to accepting your current situation as it is.

Reframing can help with acceptance.

drawing of crying over spilled milk


The psychological bias called the framing effect says that people see things differently depending on what frame is used. People will understand things differently if they are told that meat is 80% lean than if they are told that it is 20% fat.

The frame that gets used matters.

drawing of framing

Reframing, then, is putting a situation into a different frame. It's about taking something from one frame, say, "I have to do something," and putting it in a different frame, "I get to do something."

drawing of reframing

The classic reframe is seeing life as an analogy using a glass of water. One frame is to see the glass as being half empty. The reframe is to see the glass as being half full. This is an analogy because it applies to more than just water in glasses. Seeing your life as being half over feels different than feeling you have half your life left to live.

drawing of half empty vs half full

We can learn to reframe our lives in such a way that makes it easy to accept what life gives us.


Mindfulness is effectively paying attention to whatever's going on in the present moment without wanting it to be different. The idea is that the present moment is all we have.

Yet, many people spend a lot of their energy in the past. They think about how things should have been different or agonize over whether they made the right decision. They may ruminate about past relationships or events.

But the past doesn't exist. You can't experience the past. The past only exists as a thought.

drawing of the past if only a thought

It's the same with the future. Many people worry about what the future will look like. They feel intense anxiety and fear about what the future may bring.

And much like the past, the future doesn't exist. You can't experience the future. The future only exists as a thought.

drawing of the future is only a thought

All we have is the present. We did experience the past at one point, but when we experienced it, it was the present. Likewise, we (probably) will experience the future, but when we do, it will be a new present moment.

All we experience - all we can experience, is the present moment. Understanding this opens the door to accepting the present moment and choosing an appropriate response based on the information you have - both data about the past and predictions about the future.

drawing of the present moment is all we have

Thus, when something happens, avoidance and nonacceptance prevent us from making a productive decision. Much like the spilled milk, ruminating about whether or not you do or don't deserve something takes time and energy away from facing your challenge head-on.

Acceptance doesn't mean enjoying the fact that something bad happened. It just means that once it's happened, it needs your attention, and the mindfulness frame helps you see that acceptance is the first step in solving the issue.

drawing of acceptance reframe

The Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire measures your level of mindfulness among five interrelated components. These components are observing, describing, acting with awareness, nonjudgment of inner experiences, and not reactivity to inner experiences. They can be helpful in gaining an understanding of the areas of mindfulness in which you may want to focus.


Another potentially helpful frame comes from Stoicism. One of the Stoic's main ideologies is that, in order to live a life of contentment, one must recognize the fact that we can control some things, but many things are outside our control. The Stoics council us to let go of things over which we have no control and instead put all our energy into those things over which we do have some control.

One of the main things we have no control over is the past. Once something happens, whether it's our fault or not, it can't be undone. The milk has been spilled. It's a sunk cost.

This doesn't mean that we can't learn from the past. Indeed, the past contains many lessons for us. It does say that we ought not waste precious time and energy wishing for a better past.

drawing of you can't control the past

Another thing Stoics remind us of is that we can't control other people. We can't control other people's opinions of us. They would tell us that it's a waste of a life to worry about what others think. The same goes for their behaviors. I can't control it if someone whips past me on the freeway and cuts me off. All I can control is my interpretation and response to the fact that it happened.

drawing of we can't control other people

The Stoic frame, then, says that we can view the world through the lens of what we can and can't control and focus on what we can control. This helps us accept that many things lie outside our control.

drawing of control reframe


Possibly the most powerful frame is to frame your life in terms of curiosity. Curiosity invokes a state of wonder. Terms that therapists like to use, like "empathy," are just jargony ways to say, "becoming curious about someone else's perspective." The curiosity frame, or curiosity mindset, helps in conversations by helping you try to understand what the other person means. It helps you articulate your points by helping you get curious about how you might present your points of view.

drawing of curiosity mindset

Most importantly, though, it helps you accept life. It helps turn situations that you may experience anxiety about into situations that you are curious to see the outcome of.

drawing of curiosity reframe

What would life look like if you could accept whatever life threw your way? What would it look like to view life from a lens of curiosity and with less judgment?

You get one life; live intentionally.


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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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