Conan and the Tonight Show: Lessons in Radical Acceptance

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Simone Hoermann, Ph.D., is a Psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in providing psychotherapy for Personality Disorders, Anxiety, and Depression ...Read More

Last Friday was Conan O’Brien’s last night as the host of the Tonight Show, ending two contentious weeks between O’Brien, Jay Leno and NBC that were highlighted in the media as the “Late Night Wars”.  Seven months ago, after a six year transition plan, O’Brien took over the reigns of the Tonight Show from Jay Leno, while Leno started a new show in a 10pm time slot. Ratings of neither show were what the network had hoped. Consequently, NBC asked Leno to do a 30 minute show at 11:35 and wanted Conan to move the Tonight Show back to 12:05.  O’Brien refused to move the Tonight Show stating, “I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction.”

This set off tension between O’Brien and NBC, and gave plenty of fodder on air for slights, jokes, and tension.  According to media reports, O’Brien is now leaving the network with a $45 million settlement–a portion of which is going to pay his staff.


Conan’s last installment of the Tonight Show turned out to get the highest rating on Hulu last week, and support by his fans has been tremendous.  Now, I bet you’re wondering, “What does any of that have to do with mental health?”

Well, I certainly don’t know Conan O’Brien personally, nor would I dare speak for him or put things in his mouth.  However, I thought that O’Brien’s appearance on his last Tonight Show was touching. He conveyed that he was allowed to say anything he wanted to say, and that despite the recent differences he’d had with NBC, the network had been his home for over 20 years.  Even more importantly, Conan made it a point to ask people to not be cynical.  “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get” he said, looking as though he was fighting back tears, “But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

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There is a lot of wisdom in this last statement.  Nobody in life gets exactly what they think or what they want all the time.  Conan O’Brien could have been sarcastic, cynical, and contentious in this last Tonight Show.  However, instead, he chose to be accepting and conciliatory.

I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives when things did not go our way.  We’ve had times when we thought life should be a certain way, when we felt that we should get certain things, that we should be treated in a certain way.  We’ve had times when we were disappointed, when we had to experience a loss, and when things didn’t go the way they should be going.  Maybe you can relate – maybe you’ve lost a job, maybe a lover broke up with you, maybe you’ve been diagnosed with an illness, or experienced some type of tragedy hit in one way or another.  The pain of that can be tremendous and sometimes unfathomable.

I guess, typically, what we then try to do is quarrel with fate, harbor resentment, push up against what is happening, and fight the reality that things are so.  This is so very human, and I bet we’ve all done it.  Have you also experienced that moment of relief that that occurs when you finally accept that things are the way they are?  When you can acknowledge that, yes, it hurts, that, yes, it is infuriating, yes, it feels unfair that any of it happened, but that “it is what it is?”

This is what talks about in a skill called “radical acceptance.”  This moment when you stop fighting reality and accept that life is the way it is.  Now, this does not mean that you approve or agree.  This also does not mean that you put your hands in your lap and accept things that you could change without doing do anything about them.  Rather, radical acceptance is often a starting point for change – in order to affect change, you first have to realize what the situation is and acknowledge it. 

If you’ve ever tried radical acceptance, you’ve probably noticed that it tends to last for only a short time, usually moments to minutes.  Therefore, acceptance is thought of as something that you have to do over and over again. You might have experienced it yourself – something really difficult happens, and you resent it and fight it and are broken up about it.  So then, maybe at some point, you decide you’re just going to have to accept it, and there is this sense of relief. And then short time later, you find yourself resenting and fighting again. The idea is that acceptance is something that you have to decide to be willing to engage in over and over again.  Acceptance is something that can be extraordinarily difficult.

            Now, granted, you may not consider Conan O’Brien’s situation a major tragedy, particularly as he gets to walk off with a lot of money.  However, he lost his job, which he called, “the best job on earth”, and said that walking away from it  was “the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”  He did not get what he wanted, and he made a graceful exit in the end.

           I do realize that the concept of radical acceptance  may sound a bit provocative.  “Great, Simone”, you might say, “I’m just supposed to accept things that are painful?”  That’s why I want to put this out there as questions: Have you had experience in using this idea of radical acceptance? Are there things in your life that you have to decide to accept, no matter how hard it is? Were there moments when radical acceptance was helpful, or moments when it really was not? Have you modified or tweaked this skill in some way that was helpful?  I’d love to hear your thoughts — please post below.

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