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  • Writer's pictureJonah Mishaan

Why You Can't Accept Accepting

Updated: Feb 28

Acceptance is one of the core components of therapy. The idea itself is not very complicated - that recognizing and allowing for all different facets of our experience and situation ultimately brings healing. However, I’ve found that despite the relative simplicity of the idea, the actual practice and embodiment of acceptance is one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome in treatment. And the difficulties many have with acceptance is not limited to how to apply it. But the notion of acceptance can sometimes activate pushback to the very notion of it in principle, at least as a useful tool for them in their situation. I began to notice underlying themes in the objections I was hearing in sessions. Here are the most common arguments I’ve heard as to why someone feels that they cannot accept.

The first objection against acceptance is the argument from pain. This argument can be expressed as: “why should I accept this pain (or anger, weakness, loneliness, situation, etc.)? This is awful and I don’t like this! I need to fight this, and make sure it doesn’t grow and get worse.” This perspective maintains that avoiding and pushing away certain feelings from awareness is necessary to ensure that they don’t do further harm. These negative feelings are viewed as enemies, which need to be fought against to prevent a hostile takeover, and overwhelming of the system.

One problem with this view is that it maintains ‘if I don’t acknowledge it, it’s not there.’ If I ignore or deny any space for those facets of my experience I don’t like, I can make them go away. However, the rejection of these facets of our experience does not actually make them go away. They find other ways of impacting and impairing us, operating from the darkness to which they have been banished.

This orientation leads to internal division and schism. It pits parts of ourselves against each other and leaves us conflicted. And while accepting painful parts of ourselves or emotional states can lead to pain in the short term, it ultimately reduces tension and division, and leads to long term healing. If frightening sensations are not given the time and attention needed to move through the body and resolve/dissolve, the individual will continue to be gripped by fear and other negative emotions. Once we understand the process and do not interfere with it, biology works to move it along.

The second objection against acceptance is the argument from endorsement. This argument can be expressed as, “it’s not okay for this to be happening. If I accept this, I’m saying that this is fine, and that I don’t have a problem with it.” The response to this objection is that acceptance does not mean feeling that what you are going through is good. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should tolerate just staying in any sort of negative situation. Abusive and unhealthy situations need not, and should not be tolerated. Acceptance does not conflict with taking action, and steps should be taken to rectify those situations. Acceptance is the acknowledgement of the situation you’re in, and the feelings you are having. In that sense, acceptance is the necessary precursor to intentional action. We may try to deny, repress, dissociate, and suppress facets of ourselves or our world which feel painful or threatening. We try to live our lives ignoring these unwelcome facts. Acceptance means recognizing the whole picture for what it is. We don’t have to like it, but if we continue to live in denial, we run the risk of being impacted more negatively. We must “know our enemies,” to paraphrase the ancient Chinese proverb. But even moreso, once we accept these “enemies,” we may find that once we bring them out into the light and look at them, that they aren’t quite as awful as we thought. We might even learn to see them as friends.

The third objection is the argument from excellence. This argument can be expressed as, “if I want to excel, to reach the top of my field, to attain my goal, I can’t accept weakness. I need to go all out and can’t tolerate anything but getting to the top.” This outlook presumes that rejecting the possibility of failure is ultimately the best way of having the desired success. The problem with this orientation, is that saying, ‘failure is not an option,’ does not make it so. Regardless of how much we work, or how perfect we try to be, we do not have the control to eliminate the possibility of not reaching our goal. By outwardly rejecting those as viable possibilities, we are also inwardly rejecting the parts of ourselves who are more keenly aware of the possibility of failure.

The belief that ‘I am bad if I fail,’ is in fact a judgment of one part of us towards another. In various theoretical orientations the judging part is called the superego, a protector, or an inner critic. When our judging part expresses itself so harshly, our more vulnerable parts are denied space to exist. And we lose out on their energy, creativity, love, and power which results from that harsh rejection. The internal battles we wage with whipping ourselves to success, are more costing us our own happiness and well being, making even those “victories” feel hollow. What’s more, is that the depletion which results from this internal divide, limits us from being present and engaged in whatever endeavor we are striving towards. The non-acceptance becomes a weight we are forced to carry on our journey towards the top. *I am unsure if there is in fact a limitation of acceptance to allow for being at the very top of a competitive field. Thinking of figures like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, and how fanatical they are about winning - is an unhealthy fixation on success needed to get to those positions? Or can a more balanced open orientation also allow someone to reach those heights? It’s a question I’m not so sure about. What do you think?

The last and most challenging objection is the argument from growth. I call this the most challenging because this objection hides under the cover of valuing self-improvement and “working on oneself.” This argument states: “if I accept these different facets of my situation, I would be limiting my potential. I don’t want to accept this situation, or the reactions I’m having. I want to be better, and I could be better. How is accepting these flaws and negative qualities facilitating growth?” It is a strong objection indeed.

But acceptance does not mean not striving to change or grow. Acceptance is the recognition that we cannot move out of a situation until we accept that we are in it. We cannot change until we recognize our problem and develop our vision of where we want to get to and how we can get there.

But on a deeper level, we might conceptualize the change process as coming from acceptance. This perspective was expressed by the psychologist Carl Rogers, in what he describes as the paradox of change. Rogers says, "the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." Rodgers is saying that as you accept yourself more fully, you find yourself feeling more free, more alive, and more integrated. You become the people you’ve wanted to be, by discovering how that person was actually there all along. Growth ultimately comes from accepting oneself, as you are. This allowance of yourself in full, facilitates fuller access to your vitality, compassion, and wisdom. When we are stuck rejecting and criticizing ourselves, we lose our creativity and our spark, as our energy is trapped in these internal conflicts and battles.

What’s more is that the circles of acceptance can be ever-widening. And there is even space to hold the parts which don’t accept - the negative, critical, shame-filled parts. We can express that those feelings are also a part of my experience. And you can hold those.

There is always going to be a gap between our intellectual apprehension of a concept, and our felt sense experience of it. But by identifying some of the pitfalls on our road to acceptance, we are better prepared for the journey ahead. Now that you’ve read about the various arguments against acceptance, which one do you believe is the biggest challenge for you? And what could you do to cultivate more acceptance in your life?


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