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“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” ~ Carl Rogers
I am the king of self-acceptance.
No matter what mess I get myself into, I’m ready and willing to just let it all go.
Take right now, for example: I love chocolate so much that it’s ended, as it often does, with me feeling too sick and wired to properly focus. Not to mention it’s undoubtedly leading me to a future of type 2 diabetes. But life is hard, and I work hard (at least in the mornings), so I deserve all the chocolate I can get, right?
I also have the socially awkward tendency to blank on people’s names—even if they’ve told me several times and they’re wearing it on a tag. But hey, what are names anyway? Just labels, so I don’t think twice about it.
And I’m so disorganized and prone to procrastination that I started this article two months ago and only just got around to finishing it. Such is the life of a creative.
As you can see, this attitude of total acceptance feels better than beating myself up over every single one of my inadequacies and shortcomings. But it also falls pretty drastically short in living up to what the real practice of acceptance is about:
Allowing yourself to be more of the person you want to be.
The problem is that, if you’re like me and you’ve struggled in the past with self-esteem and body image, getting into the comfortable habit of letting everything slide right on by offers some welcome relief.
I grew up in a household in which liking yourself was akin to a cardinal sin, and feeling guilty about everything—all the time—was mandatory. So when I heard about a magical practice called “acceptance,” wherein I could drop the constant striving to impress and please others and gather some sense of peace without having to really do anything, I gobbled it up wholeheartedly.
Life was good, and I became pretty satisfied and pleased with myself.
But it didn’t last long.
Soon enough, I’d adopted such a self-righteous attitude of “everything is cool” and such a strong ability to let things go that I became stuck, somewhat indifferent toward what happened and complacent in my desire to keep moving forward and changing for the better.
I could do with getting on top of my work routine—but it’s okay, a little flexibility and chaos never hurt anyone.
I should really start eating better and exercising more—-but it’s okay, there are plenty of people with worse diets and lifestyles than you.
I need to take better care of my mental health—but it’s okay, getting a bit down and stressed out is just a part of life, and anyway, that’s what chocolate’s for.
Was this really acceptance?
Was it that I’d accepted myself and my problems with such triumphant success that they just didn’t bother me anymore? Or was it that, more likely, I’d reached a point where it was time to change, but for some reason, I couldn’t muster up the beans to do it and was thus hiding behind the guise of being able to let it all go and accept?
If you guessed the latter, then congrats, you win, and I was not, in fact, the rightful king of acceptance. Take my crown.
What I thought was acceptance was actually something I’d whipped up to convince myself I was okay when I wasn’t, so I didn’t have to face the difficult, messy stuff and actually deal with my problems.
It wasn’t easy to see this. I was an expert at cushioning myself from reality with feel-good stories and impressive rationalizations. I’d become somewhat closed off from and dulled to how much I wanted things to be different, and instead arming myself with the appropriate adage anytime I felt a tinge of dissatisfaction creeping in: “all is well,” “what will be will be,” and “alright man, that’s enough—just let it go already.”
The reality was, although I was kinda okay with how things were and how my life had turned out, I was far from accepting it. And because of that, I wasn’t able to change, improve, and get on with being who I wanted to be.
Thankfully, this surprising and unpleasant wake-up call led me to a new and much greater understanding of acceptance, one that’s inseparable from change but that also, thankfully, doesn’t mean having to give up chocolate (although I am cutting down).
It also led me to realize that it’s common for people to misunderstand acceptance like I did—as something that’s about passively surrendering and giving in, and therefore incompatible with change and self-improvement.
Accepting Something Doesn’t Mean We Want it to Be That Way.
In day-to-day life, acceptance is a word we typically take as being about approval or agreement. It’s being accepted for that new position or finally agreeing to go out for dinner with that persistent colleague.
The problem is that when we turn this definition of acceptance toward ourselves and our experience, it can become radically limiting.
For example, say I “accept” the fact that I am more self-centered and unhealthy than I would like to be. In a way, I am giving in to such unfavorable attributes and granting them my stamp of approval. I am saying this is how it is, and you know what, I’m okay with it. I fully approve.
Although this has lifted a weight off my shoulders for a while—ridding me of the responsibility and allowing me to lazily welcome it—it directly worked against my ambition to change.
By considering acceptance as being about approval and committing a sort of passive resignation to the facts of life, I was essentially saying I wanted them to be that way.
But acceptance, at least when we think about it in a radically different way, says nothing about wanting things to be how they are.
What I’m talking about is radical acceptance.
This is a practice from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) that transforms acceptance from being a passive act that occurs on the surface, merely consenting or surrendering to how things appear to be, to a dynamic act of looking at things in a much deeper, more complete, and radical way.
A Radical Approach to Acceptance
I have chronic neck pain that isn’t helped by poor posture and work habits. If I “accept” my situation in the typical way, then I approve of it. That means I’m okay with it. So I excuse my behaviour. Then I can’t do anything about it. That means I resign myself to being miserable and to continue suffering and wallowing in my painful cocoa-infused mess.
By radically accepting my situation, I look at it and say, “Hm, okay, this is how things are, this is what’s happening. I have neck pain and poor work habits. And I eat too much chocolate. But I do so without approving, condoning, or judging it in any way.”
I also look at my state of mind and my feelings without judging, fighting, or resisting them. That means I look at my bitterness for how much I wish things weren’t this way. I look at my strong desire for change. I look at my confusion and feelings of helplessness, sensing that I am unable to cope with things on my own. I consider all of these things, whether I like them or dislike them, without trying to change them or contest them.
I radically embrace the entirety of the situation as it is—including how I think, feel, and see it. Why? Because that’s how it is.
The Essential First Step Toward Change
Before realizing this difference between radical acceptance and plain-old-sliced-bread acceptance, accepting something and working toward changing it can seem like two completely incompatible and equally impossible tasks.
Especially when we want something to change so badly that every ounce of our being resists the reality of it—focusing on how much we wish we could change it, or pretending it’s not how it is—to the point that we can’t help but avoid it and become somewhat indifferent about it.
It makes sense: it’s advantageous to protect ourselves from feeling vulnerable, hurt, sad, or hopeless. But we can only start from where we are, and sometimes part of the process is being able to accept this too. It’s forgiving ourselves for how things have turned out. It’s forgiving ourselves for not knowing how to change. It’s forgiving ourselves for not living up to our expectations, being too hard on ourselves, and not being as accepting as we thought we could.
It can be discomforting and, at times, even feel like you’re going backward. But, as it’s said in DBT, the road out of hell is paved with discomfort. And by choosing to take this difficult and somewhat counterintuitive road, rather than the familiar path of turning away, soon enough, you will notice a funny thing happening:
You start to change.
As the psychologist Carl Rogers famously said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.”
In one sense, this is because the first step toward change can only ever be right at our feet. But in another sense, when you’ve given up resisting reality and you can see things as they are, change has already started happening.
It may be that you see there’s actually nothing you need to do; or it may be that you need to make some subtle adjustments to your routine; or it may be that you set in motion some pretty major transformations in your life.
For me, it meant finally embracing my situation, without being ashamed or worried about what it meant, and therefore being able to put in place the conditions and support to lift myself out from it. Overall, though, it meant realizing that all along, the power to change was in my hands, and that if only I could radically accept myself as I am, then I could get on with becoming who I wanted to be.