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When Acceptance is Helpful and When it's Not

People take the concept of acceptance to mean two different things. One is helpful, the other is not. Many of my clients initially balk at the idea of accepting themselves as they are because it sounds like resignation. “But I don’t want to be overweight,” a client tells me. “I mean, seriously, I will be very unhappy if I’m still overweight in five years.” The connotation of resignation in the word acceptance rubs many people the wrong way because they do not want to settle for the way they are currently.

As a psychological concept and tool, acceptance is only useful in its second sense: forgiveness and understanding. The goal of losing weight is not abandoned, but rather the condition of being overweight, now and in the past, is forgiven. Also, causes are understood. Acceptance is helpful when it allows people to stop beating themselves up and provides an avenue for change based on emotional alternatives. There is often a profound sense of relief, as well as a renewed commitment to change, when acceptance in its truly helpful form is adopted. In economics, there is the concept of “sunk cost,” which encourages people to make decisions based on the current moment, and not fixate on investments (good or bad) in the past. The same thing happens on an emotional level with acceptance.

But let us take a deeper look at why acceptance is helpful in mobilizing us toward our goals. Let’s imagine a scenario where you are arguing with someone about something. They begin with a statement that you openly disagree with. On the defensive now, they shoot back at you with why your counter-argument is wrong. Not to be outdone, you one-up their rebuttal. And so on. Both people leave the conversation more entrenched in their views and much less willing to concede any of the views of the other person.

Now, if you had said something like, “I can see where you’re coming from,” then most likely the other person would have listened and responded similarly to your own views. But why is this? The answer, I think, is that in the first scenario, the person felt under attack. They were put on the defensive from the beginning. When people do not feel defensive, they are more willing to be generous, open, and giving.

Think of your ambivalence to accomplish your goals, or be a different person, in the same way. If you constantly barrage yourself for being this way or that, then the side of you that is being berated is going to shoot back and defend itself. In other words, neither side will be listening. But if you say to it, “You know what, you have a point there. I can see where you’re coming from,” then the defenses are down and a meaningful, productive dialogue can ensue.

As Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

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