Sometimes, when I tell a new client that my approach is based strongly in acceptance, and I explain that I believe we must accept all of our Selves in order to change, they give me a look that roughly translates to, “You’ve got to be kidding me” or “are you an alien?”. I think there are 2 parts to their incredulity.
Part I: They have bought in to the myth that acceptance means to give up and give in.
Part II: They cannot imagine and do not to want to consider accepting the parts of themselves that they don’t like.
I get it.
For many years, hearing the line, “acceptance is the answer to all my problems today” from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, would bring about an eye roll of dramatic proportions. My critical resistance was based on a conflation between acceptance and surrender AND a sense that there were way too many bits of me that were too disgusting and terrible to take into account. I believed that if I just kept ramming my head against the proverbial walls of my existence and kept my eyes closed with regard to some of my less appealing thoughts, feelings and behaviors, I’d be just fine.
I was actually very far from fine.
It took me a long time to understand acceptance as an active choice, and it took an even longer time to choose to practice acceptance on myself.
I promise two things: First, I am imperfect in this acceptance practice. I hit roadblocks and experience my resistance and denial all the time. Second, I wouldn’t ask my clients to take this leap into the abyss if I hadn’t already done it and experienced the treasure chest of possibility that results from jumping.
Here’s what I’ve come to know:
Acceptance is the key piece that allows Change. I’ll be honest. I hear lots of people say that they’re practicing “owning their own shit,” but what I experience as truth is that they don’t mind talking about their own stuff, but no real change is taking place. I don’t think this is because people are terrible. I wouldn’t do the work that I do in the world if I believed that. I do think that we can talk about our own baggage and junk and still be resisting its reality. This is particularly true, I think, when shame is playing a hand in the game. When really looking deeply at myself brings up shame, all I want to do is look away.
Acceptance asks us to look toward…to step toward…and even to welcome it in for a cup of coffee or tea. Acceptance asks us to SEE clearly without filters what is real in any given moment. Acceptance is a truth seeker. It is curious and compassionate.
Acceptance is also realistic. Acceptance lets us look at rough spots and see that smoothing them out will contribute to a better, more fulfilling life, and it opens the windows for change. Without it, windows stay locked down with the black-out curtains shut tight.
Without acceptance, denial and self-sabotage will continue to dominate and work against our own efforts for self-improvement and transformation. It can look like: not taking medication when we really need it, not going to the doctor or engaging in the self care that we need, continuing to use or abuse alcohol or other mood/mind altering substances, falling into the same fighting patterns with our significant other, failing to pursue our big dreams, staying in relationships that should have been over a long time ago, falling into consumer debt over and over again, and so many others. Denial keeps us stuck in our old patterns of Being.
How do we go from denial to acceptance? That’s the big question, right? My recommendation is this – start slow and with tiny easy things – things that should be fairly easy to say, “I can accept that” to. A great place to start is with the breath. Try this simple mindfulness practice:
Sit down in a comfortable, upright position that allows you to breathe with ease.
Gently lower or close your eyes, keeping your chin level so that you’re facing straight ahead.
Begin to observe your breath without trying to alter it in any way. Just watch it without labeling it as good or bad.
As you inhale, say to yourself, “I am aware that I am breathing in.”
As you exhale, say, “I am aware that I am breathing out.”
Simply allowing ourselves to become aware of what is actually happening inside of us in any given moment without judging it one way or another is acceptance. We let it in. We don’t resist. We don’t deny. Our hands are open to the experience.
If a thought rises, say, “I am aware of a thought,” and go back to your breath. Don’t give yourself time to judge the thought or tell a story about it. Go right back to your breath as soon as you are aware that you have become distracted.
Rinse and repeat the process for 5 to 10 minutes.
This kind of mindfulness practice is a gentle, back door entrance into the world of acceptance. We start by learning to accept our moment to moment experience while sitting in a safe, comfortable place. As we accumulate minutes of practice in simple breath/thought observation, we start to notice that we are more aware of our moment to moment experience outside meditation. Awareness without judgment is the pathway to acceptance and ultimately to change.
Be patient. Be curious. Breathe.
W., Bill. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous : the story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. New York :Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.