Updated: Feb 2
Acceptance is one of those words that can provoke defensiveness in the most seemingly mature person in a nanosecond. Pick any controversial topic in the news and mention the word 'acceptance' and someone will come unhinged. Which is why I am writing about it. Acceptance gets frequently and inaccurately interchanged in meaning with words like 'resignation', 'surrender' and 'defeat' simply because it's just not fully understood.
So, if you struggle with the concept of acceptance, don't beat yourself up. I misinterpreted the word for most of my life and have only come to realize it power in the last few years. Let's take a look a nine common misconceptions about Acceptance and try to add some clarity, so you too, can use it to your benefit.
1. Acceptance is not resignation
This is the most popular misconception of acceptance. The biggest key difference is that resignation has no action associated with it. Acceptance does. Resignation is literally described as the "act of giving up a position" and "accepting something undesirable but inevitable." The second description is partially accurate because unfortunately, a lot of the hybrid world we live in is undesirable.
But there is another missing ingredient in 'resignation', that is found with 'acceptance'. When we accept someone, or let go of our resistance to something, we also acquire choice - a choice about what to do next. Think of any opposing trait, person or ideology as a rope being pulled from two ends. What happens when you let go of your end of the rope? You stop the resistant pull and...you have freed up your energy. Energy (and time) that you would have otherwise wasted on resistance is now free to use 100% in any direction that YOU want. That's powerful choice, not defeatist resignation. And you gained it by dropping the rope and whatever was at the other end.
2. Acceptance is not (just) 'taking it'
People misdefine acceptance in this way, believing it's about giving up personal power or relinquishing control. The misused word here is 'just'. Consider acceptance, or the 'taking' of something, as similar to receiving something. You can accept, take or receive your paycheck twice a month. You can also accept, take or receive something you dislike, like a muddy ball that was unexpectedly tossed your way. Whether you like it or not, you receive, take or accept both of these items. But what you do with it next is really what defines the 'taking'. You can throw the unwanted ball back, perhaps with more energy than it was initially thrown. And then repeat this with ever-increasing force, pretty much draining your energy into the ideology or person you are opposing. Or... you can just accept the ball, put it down and walk away from the game.
Who's really has the power now?
3. Acceptance is not surrender or defeat
Surrender is defined as "ceasing resistance and succumbing to authority." Although the ceasing of resistance does apply, the succumbing to authority does not. There is nothing about Acceptance that says you have to yield to any human authority but your own. We all are quite capable of assessing rules and laws of the place we choose to live and determining if they are helpful or unhelpful in our lives, or support our goals. And if we want to break certain man-created rules, then we each can choose the amount of consequence-risk we are willing to take in order to do it.
If you believe in a Higher Power or a Universal Life Force or Intelligence, that is the one 'authority' where surrender is essential. None of us have complete control over the natural laws and powers of the Universe. Once we surrender to this concept, it can be very freeing. Because it leaves us to focus on what we can influence.
So if we are not resisting human-involved authority, and not succumbing to it, what's left to do? The answer - you are free to do whatever you want to do within the system that you have chosen to live and are wanting to influence.
It's often much easier to resist or succumb to a designated authority
than to accept that this authority exists and direct energy
towards what you do want.
Whether you resist or succumb, someone else's philosophy, doctrine or action is dictating your life and behaviors. You are giving away control of your life by doing either. It's only when you accept that something exists that you gain absolute freedom. Then, by turning your attention away from what you don't want and onto that which you do want, no one but you is controlling your life. If you can't learn to thrive in one system, you can always try living in another. But I feel fairly confident that some form of discord exists everywhere in the world. So keep that in mind.
In cases where physical or psychological harm is eminent, we all have the power to make a choice to leave the situation or ask for help in order to do it. However, for those who are operating with a dysregulated mind-body that has become conditioned to fear and helplessness, it can be very difficult to figure out which of our choices is actually healthy or unhealthy. If you are confused, reaching out for help is a critical first step.
But in most first-world environments where options are plenty and eminent life-threats are few,
it takes courage and creativity to accept the hybrid nature of the world we live in and learn to work from within it. Finding ways to make change happen while simultaneously living within what we are working to change is a trait of true leadership.
The added benefit of this approach is constant and repeated feedback. If what you are doing is producing the influence you want, you will start to see it right away. If something is not working out how you envisioned, then you instantly have the ability to assess it, pivot and choose another path.
4. Acceptance does not mean that you agree
Acceptance has nothing to do with your opinion or feelings about a subject. Acceptance is about acknowledging reality and facts. As example, in my living room there is a really cool lamp and my new dog just peed on the carpet. I love the lamp and am not so happy about the pee. Nonetheless, I accept that both exist right there in front of me.
When it comes to people, it's helpful to remember that accepting a person for who they are is different from accepting their behavior. I can accept a person, even as their most imperfect self, while at the same time having absolutely no tolerance for the unhelpful thing they are doing, or saying. In other words, I can accept a person and still walk away from that person because of unwanted behavior. Interestingly, this realization also translates to self-acceptance.
Each of us have done or said something at some time in our past that was unhelpful or even hurtful. It most likely was due to a lack of skill or a lack of awareness at some point in our life. Neither of which is a crime. So with this understanding, I can experience regret about my past behavior while at the same time, accepting my imperfect self who made the mistake. You don't have to give up one for the other. You can do both. This is another example of dropping that 'rope'. When I accept my own past, unwanted behavior, or let go of resisting it, I free up energy that I can direct towards developing behaviors that I do want.
I accept myself as imperfect (fact). And I accept that I made a behavioral mistake in my past (fact). Now the most effective use of that freed up energy is towards developing the behaviors I do want. Are you starting to get the hang of true acceptance?
5. Acceptance is not about 'laying down' and doing nothing
In fact, the opposite is true.
Acceptance can be a springboard for powerful, directional action.
Using my new-puppy example, once I accepted that my imperfect dog is still learning, I have a choice. I could smack him and scold him, a form of resistance. I could clean up the pee and do nothing, a form of disempowered resignation. Or... I could take action directed at getting the result I do want - putting more effort into training him where I actually want him to pee. Both of the first two options are quick, easy and discharge the adrenaline from my body towards another being. In the moment, it may may seem like the puppy (or the person) who is present during your upset deserves your wrath. But they rarely do. Most times anger, 'snarkiness' or sarcasm is a benefit to ourselves. By discharging an uncomfortable emotion that we don't know how to resolve, we relieve ourselves temporarily of the unpleasant buildup of fight-or-flight neurochemicals. Unfortunately, the puppy or whoever is in our presence, unnecessarily pays the price for our lack of self-regulation. We'd all be better off taking a look at our own mental and physiological systems and discovering why we are unfairly reacting to an imperfection that is not life-threatening. The puppy (or person) doesn't need to be punished simply because we are unwilling to do our own personal work.
Someone may argue that smacking the dog is equally as effective as making the effort to continue training. Maybe this option is even quicker. But does this action align with my values? Does it represent who I am? How will the relationship with my pup evolve over time? And more importantly, why did I experience such upset about a small animal making a mistake? Working towards what we want instead of resisting what we don't want takes more effort. But for most people*, it will feel more aligned with their true nature. It also cultivates a positive relationship, and gets the desired result. So if you struggle with this concept, perhaps the real question to ask yourself is "am I simply avoiding action-oriented acceptance because I'm looking for the easier path of playing a victim? Am I actually resisting out of apathy? What about laziness? Or indifference?". There is always something of higher value that we try to hang onto with our behaviors, regardless if they are healthy or unhealthy. What do I gain from resistance that I wouldn't have with acceptance? I've found that my answers often make the optimal path more evident.
*Those who are still under the influence of unresolved trauma, may have brains and bodies that are in such a dysregulated state that abusing a dog or a person may actually feel 'right' to them at the time. It may not be conscious. And as mentioned, it could be a misdirected discharge of anger (bullies). But as we have discussed in the Whole-Brain Relationships course, the mind-body can also operate under the influence of inaccurate feedback loops. So I sometimes wonder if the concept of faulty homeostatic 'set points' plays a role. In other words, what has become familiar and known to the brain and body can often be quite unhealthy. But this is a case example of where we can have compassion for these unfortunate people, while simultaneously not tolerating their behavior.
6. Acceptance is not settling for less than you deserve
In fact by dropping the 'rope' from my end and freeing up energy, I have just reclaimed 100% of my personal power and have the ability to direct it wherever I choose. And any direction or goal, that is selected from a healthily operating brain and body, will be of greater value than what I am resisting. That is powerful choice, and definitely not settling for less.
7. Acceptance is not a stance of weakness. It's a source of power
Acceptance redirects and amplifies personal power. Resistance in the form of criticism, complaining, blaming or judgment directs it towards whatever you oppose, and amplifies the power of your opposition. Is that really what you want? These behaviors discharge pain and sadness and feel cathartic. They may even generate a sense of belonging if you find others who are doing the same thing. But these behaviors are short bursts of temporary one-upmanship that get fed directly into what you oppose. I know this firsthand, as I unconsciously wasted a lot of energy with these behaviors in my past. I got short-term relief and temporary, hollow satisfaction, all while accomplishing.. absolutely nothing. In fact, they ended up working against my goals.
Acceptance is a process. And these irrelevant, conditioned habits can continue to creep in now and again. But it was acceptance that gave me my thought freedom back. Thought freedom that was previously tied to the concept or person that I was resisting. And I couldn't fully see the connection while I was tied to it - we can sometimes get inseparably intertwined with our perceptions. But once I learned to to observe my thoughts and beliefs more objectively, I was able question them and make choices about which ones were supporting my life goals, and which were not. It's important to mention that although my personal power is now being continually freed up as I cultivate more and more acceptance, I didn't get full access to it right away.
The process of releasing resistance has definitely contributed to an expanding sense of freedom. But it was only once my mind began to sustainably detach from old conditioning and my physiological systems began to recalibrate back to a more natural state, that I was able to start optimally accessing and utilizing my essential power.
8. Acceptance is not less effective than resistance
Acceptance is actually the foundation for sustainable change. That is not an oxymoron. Resistance may be effective in the short-term. Muscling through or forcing something small, doesn't cost too much energy and may be worth the time savings for the insignificant hurdles we encounter on a daily basis. And resistance can sometimes feel good in the moment. Helplessness, fear and sadness are not pleasant feelings to experience. And the quickest and most obvious route to discharging it is through anger and resistance. My brain likes 'comfort' and tries to quickly get rid of 'uncomfortable' because I'm falsely conditioned to believe that feeling uncomfortable is something that's not supposed to happen. Of course, that's not true. Discomfort offers a wealth of information about yourself. But detangling from false conditioning can take time.
And resistance is not the route to take if you want your desired changes to last. In fact, resistance can actually block us from getting what we do want. Carl Jung's abbreviated and familiar quote describes this in simple terms: "that which we resist, persists". Which means that
accepting and facing fears of any kind, is the most effective way
to sustainably weaken their power over you.
This is the same in our external world. But it requires courage and effort to do it. If you are lacking either of those traits, ask yourself,"what would it take for me to have courage and make the effort?". It's human nature to avoid the challenge of personal change until staying the same becomes more difficult than the work required to change. So if you are one of those who are not there yet, who haven't suffered enough, who are satisfied with status quo, 'getting by' and your life is 'good enough', I can accept that. And If someday you desire something more from your life or if your current model stops working for you, then come find me. Or find someone else whose experience resonates with you. I believe everyone is exactly where they are supposed in their growth. If it takes a while to exhaust your current life model. Or if you're already fulfilled and find joy in everything you do and with all of your relationships, change may come late in life or may not be needed.
Lastly, demonstrating acceptance of someone, even if you don't agree with or condone their behavior creates a sense of safety, mattering and belonging. These are three essentials that all humans crave. As leadership strategist Christine Comaford articulates well, "Without these three essential keys a person cannot get into their Smart State — they cannot perform, innovate, feel emotionally engaged, agree, or move forward." In other words, if you want people to change their behavior, the highest chance of that happening is from a state of radical acceptance of who they are already at core.
It may feel counter-intuitive after so many years of operating in culturally conditioned mind-body states that scream, "resist, resist, resist!". But it's been proven repeatedly that
humans are simply more productive, creative and open to change when they are operating from a place of safety and belonging. This includes the acceptance of people whose behaviors you oppose, and hope to influence.
9. Acceptance is not irresponsible
In fact, acceptance is the most responsible stance we can take. Action that is fueled by reality-acceptance takes complete responsibility by channeling 100% of our power in the direction of what we choose and want. And I will even venture to say that resistance could be considered irresponsible. How? Because all I have to do is blame my anxiety, upset or apathy on the external person or thing that I'm resisting. There is zero responsibility in blame. Resistance says someone else is responsible for my happiness. Acceptance takes full responsibility for it. Resistance allows others or external factors to determine how I feel about a situation and how I behave. Acceptance requires me to own my own choices. Claiming our own feelings and answering for our own actions is the probably the most responsible thing we will ever do as humans. Yet there are still so many who don't choose this path.
So why would anyone intentionally choose not to be responsible? For those who have yet to learn how the brain-body works, the concept of retraining our brains may seem impossible. Most times, irresponsible behavior may not be intentional or even conscious. Intention requires awareness, which is something that comes in layers and can take years to cultivate. But even with growing awareness, acting irresponsibly can provide instant gratification - a tempting bait. And lastly, irresponsibility can unfortunately be 'familiar' to our brains if it's something that has been modeled to us by people we grew up around or surround ourselves with. And as we have learned in the Whole-Brain Relationships course, irresponsible behavior can become a conditioned response of our brain. But once you learn that you can change your brain and body, you've taken a major step towards behaving more responsibly.
Acceptance must begin with accepting ourself
The biggest block to acceptance in others is an innate refusal to accept the hybrid nature of ourselves. And until we can accept our own hybrid nature, we will struggle to accept it in the world or in others. We each must learn to accept the fact that we are both perfect and imperfect, flawed human and flawless essence, 'good 'and 'bad', altruistic and primal. We are all of these, at the same time. We are not one OR the other. We are one AND the other.
We are both. All of us.
That may sound a bit scary. But it can also be quite freeing, a sort of relief when you do finally begin to accept it. We are not meant to forcibly change ourselves. We are meant to accept ourselves fully, and put more of our energy towards that which promotes community, well-being and intelligent survival. As soon as we let go of rejecting the imperfect part of ourselves, we immediately free up energy to direct towards what we do want to amplify. It's the same for others and the world in general. Letting go of resistance is a form of acceptance. I find it helpful to think of it this way, especially with hard stuff about myself that I sometimes struggle to accept.
Resistance is a non-sustainable, short-burst pain release and 'energy-suck'
And for those ready to argue that resistance does have a history of 'wins', I'd ask...how long did that 'win' last? Was it sustained? And what grew because of it? Ask any recovering addict who has tried to 'white knuckle' (a form of resistance) their sobriety. How long did it last? Was it sustainable? And what grew because of it? Still others, who doubt the power of acceptance, may argue to 'resist first', clear the playing field of opposition so you can really create what you want. "In fact", they say, "we can't grow anything of value unless we first resist. It's like a forest fire clearing dead wood in order to see new trees grow". But that analogy is not completely factual. Yes, new growth can occur in that manner, because life and death are always intertwined. But growth can also happen, and is happening, amidst dying and decaying groups or ideas every day. So by solely using resistance as 'clearing method', you are unnecessarily destroying beautiful growth along with the decay. This translates to ideology, other people and to ourselves.
Accepting the hybrid world we live in
Within every chaotic time period of our history, there was something of value to human kind growing and emerging right along side or within it. In fact, some theologians may argue that the chaos is actually what was needed to create the growth. But even if this is true, it doesn't mean that we are in charge of creating that chaos, simply to serve our own human agendas. That's just arrogance, playing 'God' or thinking that we are more than what we are - beautifully complex 'human tools' channeling a life energy we don't fully understand, in order benefit and perpetuate our species and the world we live in.
And as soon as we let ourselves off the hook, and quit trying to shame and reject our own imperfection or pretend it doesn't exist, the clarity of part of our life purpose will arise. We are not meant to simply 'improve ourselves'. And I'm not completely sure that we are even meant to make the world 'better'. I am starting to consider that one of the fundamental purposes of our existence may simply be to learn to live with ourselves, our whole selves, but with our essential selves in charge.
Perhaps the key to influencing a world of polar opposites is to simultaneously learn to thrive within it.
I also believe our purpose is to be a tool for creation. I believe that a life that is able to create something that in some way benefits humanity, is a life well-lived. The creation doesn't have to be big or elaborate or known to masses of people. It can happen simply in our relationships, our families, our communities as well as in large-scale organizations. But if each of us, using our individual, unique mind-body 'tools', can tap into our essential power and create something, anything, that contributes to the well-being of others, I believe we can't help but experience fulfillment. But in order to do this, our brain-body 'tools' must first be operating in a healthy state. Or like a powerful weapon in the wrong hands, we are quite capable of contributing to mass destruction, instead of creation.
So if we combine this creative purpose with the necessity of learning to thrive in a world of polar opposites in order to do it, here lies the possibility of contributing to long-lasting change in meaningful ways.
If we can create amidst the chaos, with the struggle and triumph pushing each of us to develop our best selves as we do so, the product, art or relationship that results can be nothing short of excellence and can't help but serve humanity in beautiful ways.
But there is also risk with radical acceptance. By taking pressure off ourselves, and accepting our whole self as human beings, each of us could also fail. Our primal, wounded, fear-based, conditioned brains and bodies could take over. In fact, this is happening and will happen for many. This is the flip-side of our hybrid nature that we must also learn to accept. The power of the human ego combined with low thresholds of stress resistance and unhelpful beliefs patterns, has potential to 'out-muscle' our essence. When we are unconsciously operating this way, ego - the captain of 'make me feel good' - can take over at any time. And although we can accept that ego and essence co-exist, they cannot operate fully when one or the other is in charge of our life. One must take lead, so the other will follow or wither. The choice is ours.
For me, I didn't simply make a choice and witness some miraculous disappearance of ego and a surge of personal power. It's been a process. And once I committed to regulating my brain and body into a healthier state, my 'acceptance meter' changed. My steady improvement in stress and conflict tolerance allowed for greater acceptance of the hybrid nature of myself and my own imperfections. In turn, this translated to me having more room for the imperfections of others. Said in reverse, my decreased acceptance of others stemmed from my own lack of self-acceptance, which was tied to my brain operating in a dysregulated, low-threshold state. And once I started to take action towards changing that threshold and regulating my mind-body state, a domino effect in acceptance began to take place.
I wish for you to have the same experience. My experience is only one of several pathways towards acceptance, personal freedom and transformation. There is no one path, no one religion or no one mentor out there that has 'the key'. YOU are the key. Anyone who has walked the path before you can only act as a guide. But there are plenty of them out there. You just need to take that first step and look.
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