Acceptance - a key dimension of personal change
Seminal therapist Carl Rogers once said, ‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change’. Many therapies - especially the person-centred school - emphasise the importance of acceptance as a key dimension of personal change.
So, what does acceptance mean and how does it help to make personal changes? It is essential to be clear that acceptance does not mean the same as resignation: accepting a difficult problem or painful feeling is not about giving up on the possibility of some constructive resolution. Although acceptance does at times require the acknowledgement of a situation that might not have any direct resolution (i.e. accepting a terminal illness), acceptance is about taking ownership of a problem without giving into defeat. It is the opposite of denial, as acceptance is about admitting a problem and becoming more aware of its dimensions, and it is also contrary to defeatism, as acceptance is about coming to terms with an issue in as constructive a fashion as possible.
Defining acceptance more positively, the etymology of the word gives a clue as to its nature, as it is taken to mean the act of receiving that which is offered. Now that might seem quite a strange notion, as most people have no difficulty in receiving a gift; yet the idea that we should ‘receive’ our problem like a gift seems odd. Well, I do not believe that acceptance means that we must like our problems. What acceptance requires is to admit that the problem exists, that it is your problem, and that it will not simply disappear by denying it. If we were to put it more formally, acceptance leads to change, because it is the precondition for change. This is for the following reason: no change is possible unless we admit that a problem exists, that it personally affects us, and that some adaptation or solution is necessary.
Given that acceptance is the precondition for change, here are some of the specific ways that it can help:
- When we accept we have a problem to work through, we are no longer resisting our situation. In contrast, resistance sets up an inner conflict between a part that wishes to confront the problem, and a part that wishes to flee from the issue. Acceptance might create more pain in the short-term (as you might have to confront the full-scale of the problem for the first time) but it is pro-solution, as all of your energies are focused on dealing with the issue rather than futilely trying to avoid it.
- When we try and deny a problem or address it too briskly, we tend to not put much energy in understanding the problem. We are instead more focused on removing the problem as quickly as possible; this urgency, while understandable, tends to lead to less effective solutions. Acceptance creates an openness that allows one to understand and address an issue, as acceptance acknowledges the existence of the problem, and that time is needed to take stock of how it came about and how it might be tackled. In short, acceptance allows for reflection and considered resolutions; urgent reactions only lead to a cursory glance at the issue and resolutions that are likely to fail.
- Related to the above, there is a saying in solution focused therapy that the solution to the problem can often be more of the problem than the problem itself. This is not always true of course, but nevertheless certain psychological complaints confirm it: for example, the denial of an addiction creates more problems that the original issue, as no constructive response is yet possible; trying to understand why you had disturbing thoughts leads to more distress without any real understanding; feeling bad about feeling bad gives negative feelings greater power, while also obscuring what you were originally upset about. Acceptance of the problem means that either you reflect more deeply about how to solve it (as detailed above) or you come to recognise that addressing the problem requires to just let the disturbing thoughts or negative feelings just be (i.e. to try and engage with them too much might exacerbate the problem rather than relieve it).
If you find acceptance a difficult undertaking on your own, you can consult a therapist to help you achieve this precondition for change.
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About Alexander Fox
I am a counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews). I am trained to Masters level in pluralistic counselling, and I utilize a wide variety of different therapeutic approaches when working with clients. I also have a doctorate in English literature and my literary training informs my work.