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Why Acceptance Matters

I recently saw a Facebook posting from a friend of mine that listed 12 signs of spiritual awakening. They made me smile, as they were written in a typical DSM-IV “symptom” format, but instead of listing dysfunction, they were full of positive, healthy characteristics. The things we all aspire to – freedom in its purest form.

12 Signs of Spiritual Awakening (I do not know the original source, but this is brilliant):

  1. An increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen
  2. Frequent attacks of smiling
  3. Feelings of being connected with others and nature
  4. Frequent overwhelming episodes of appreciation
  5. A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience
  6. An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment
  7. A loss of ability to worry
  8. A loss of interest in conflict
  9. A loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others
  10. A loss of interest in judging others
  11. A loss of interest in judging self
  12. Gaining the ability to love without expecting anything

As I read the list, I realized that recently I have inched closer and closer to those 12 attributes.  It was not a deliberate pursuit on my part, but somehow I ended up here. It made me wonder, what was the catalyst, the thing that finally got me to this place? How did I learn, for the most part, to let go of fears, expectations, judgment, slavishly following cravings and the like? How is it that I transitioned to being in the present more of the time?

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I wish I could say it was solely from having a regular meditation practice or some singular stroke of insight, but it wasn’t. I am certain they helped, but they were not the only answer or path. As clichéd as it sounds, the truth is I finally accepted myself entirely – for who I am, what I have done, what I will never be and what I likely will not accomplish. I arrived in a space where I no longer question myself; rather, I just know at an experiential level from interacting with important people in my life, people who could really help me see things clearly, that I am good as I am right now in this moment, in every moment. Sure, there will always be something I can work on and I certainly will, but I no longer have to be perfect.

Acceptance gave me that gift.

Learning by emotional osmosis?

Truth be told, I was able to garner that acceptance from being around people who genuinely wanted the best for me and who did not have other agendas. People who would be honest about what I was doing (or not doing but should be) and who had the ability and foresight to then step back and let me figure it out. They didn’t try to change me or force anything. They simply observed in a non-judgmental way, which allowed me to be open to integrating their perspectives, and they were supportive when I took risks or pushed myself out of my comfort zone. That’s what made real change possible. 

David Richo, Ph.D., talks about this and how it leads to authentic communication and better relationships. What he calls the 5As truly came to life for me through this process.

David Richo’s 5 As: (adapted from his book How to Be An Adult In Relationships)

  • Attention – you are listened to without argument
  • Acceptance – you are loved for who you are, as you are
  • Affection – you are comforted & people act selflessly with you
  • Appreciation – your thoughts and feelings matter & are welcomed
  • Allowing – you are free to do as you wish, no one controls or manipulates you

Having the actual experience of receiving the 5As, rather than understanding them intellectually, is what allows any of us to be open to accepting information, even if it is difficult to hear, and it’s what allows us to see the truth without critical or distorted lenses (i.e., deceptive brain messages). It leads to true acceptance of ourselves and who we are from a healthy, loving perspective.

True Acceptance

In our book, we specifically talk about true vs. false acceptance because many people misunderstand what acceptance is and somehow come to believe it means giving up or giving in. True acceptance actually is the opposite: it involves realizing that letting go of expectations and no longer clinging to certain outcomes is healthy, as is setting up appropriate boundaries and limits. It means understanding that you might not get what you want right now and that you do not have to bend your values or goals just to make something happen. The reality is something will work if it is meant to; even if it is not what you want, things are perfectly fine as they are – as long as you are honoring your true self. 

As important, true acceptance allows you to not take things personally and to understand that whatever is happening is not a reflection on who you are. It allows you to no longer try to control a situation or force something to happen (because it’s not about you) and instead advocates for you keep moving forward with your true goals in life. We contrast this with the idea of false acceptance, which would actually include resigning yourself to believing whatever it is that your false, errant thoughts (i.e., deceptive brain messages) are telling you, believing that those thoughts are representative of who you are and the life you will lead or believing that you have to give in to others/not honor yourself to be loved and accepted.

What arises as you have more and more experiences of receiving the 5As and true acceptance is that you begin to see yourself and the world in a new way. You are no longer nagged by those times in the past where you wish you had done something differently and you no longer question whether your thoughts, instincts, interests or actions are correct. It just isn’t necessary anymore to go into the past or second-guess yourself. Instead, you are okay with knowing that you may not have been “perfect” in one of those moments and you acknowledge what you learned. You are grateful for, and find solace in, the experiences themselves. The lessons you learned travel with you going forward, integrated into your healthier perspective, and you let go of what no longer serves you, be it negative thoughts about yourself, anger/upset about how others acted, indignation about the situation as a whole or whatever.

It Takes A Village? Well, Yes…

What would have happened if I had not had those wonderful people in my life? Well, nothing – literally. I would not have learned what I needed to know about myself, how I saw the world and how I was traveling through life. Without acceptance and compassion, nothing would have changed.

If you think about it, it makes sense. Just as we didn’t learn these deceptive brain messages on our own, we can’t unlearn them that way either. Interacting with significant people as children, whether it was our parents, peers, teachers, babysitters, coaches or others, powerfully instilled certain thoughts, actions, patterns and beliefs in us. It was the initial source of any unhealthy thoughts, behaviors or patterns we developed and the basis for some of the positive and negative views we hold about ourselves and others.

Put in this context, it means that any one of us could have all the insight and knowledge in the world, but without interacting with others, that intellectual understanding is meaningless. Without people to practice with, to receive love and acceptance from, nothing substantive happens. Experience is what changes us.

Everyone’s path is different, but all I can tell you is that for me, it was not working on myself in isolation, meditating or insight alone that helped me break free. They were all critically important steps and absolutely necessary, but they were not enough on their own. It was receiving love and acceptance from people who mattered and a willingness on my part to be open to what they had to say and what they saw that made a difference.

So, the message seems to be this:  surround yourself with people who will treat you well, be honest with you, accept you as you are and honor your limits and boundaries – and then really listen to what they have to say. Integrate their perspectives to help figure out what is true for you and take risks, either by telling someone you trust how you feel or doing something differently than you have in the past. Be direct and honest. Provide the 5As willingly and without expectations to the important people in your life.  

And remember, none of this will happen unless you value yourself enough to only allow people into your life who can provide you with the 5As (and accept them from you) and to put clear boundaries and limits around anyone who cannot selflessly offer the 5As to you or treat you as you deserve. For further ideas or reading, check out David Richo’s excellent mindfulness-based book, How to Be An Adult in Relationships; it’s geared toward romantic relationships, but the ideas can apply to every important person in your life.

Rebecca Gladding, M.D., is co-author of You Are Not Your Brain, a clinical instructor and attending psychiatrist at UCLA. more...

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