The Paradox of Acceptance

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As change usually implies that there is something undesirable in the current situation, how can it be acceptance of it that leads to change? Why isn’t it non-acceptance that leads to change?

The paradox of acceptance is that it leads to change. In my experience it is rarely punishment or pushing that leads to change. In my experience it is usually acceptance which leads to change.

As change usually implies that there is something undesirable in the current situation, how can it be acceptance of it that leads to change? This non-acceptance may be ‘negative’ (dislike of the current situation, anger, frustration and so on) or ‘positive’ (visualisation, planning a preferred future and so on). Why doesn’t non-acceptance lead to change? This is what this post will try to answer.

There are various kinds of change and so acceptance of different things is involved.

Changing External Circumstances

The external circumstances of our lives include everything from the arrangement of the lounge room furniture to the political system in which we live. We will have the ability to influence some parts of our external environment more easily than others (depending on things like: who we are, the job we do, who our friends are, the organisations we belong to and so forth).

I think that to change anything at all means dealing with it. And knowledge of the attributes of what we want to change determines how we relate to it. Whether the lounge room furniture is a Chesterfield sofa or a Bentwood chair influences how we move it; whether we live in a party-dominated democracy (like Australia, where I live) or one where the ‘representatives’ are less constrained by party discipline (like the US) influences how we work to change public policy. [The different place of the constitution in these democracies also is important: political change in Australia has often come from the parties, in the US from the courts.]

However much we want the future to be different, changing the present reality means having an idea of where to start — knowing the current situation. This is what I mean by acceptance in this context.

Knowledge of the current situation and our attempts to change it can be a cycle. Kurt Lewin: “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.” One implication of this is that it is important for those involved in social change to take time to reflect on what they have learned. Unceasing activism can be ceaseless futility.

Personal Change

The morality that I grew up with (in Evangelical Christianity) tended to be of the view that there was a bad part to us that needed to be ‘disciplined’, which usually meant punished and treated harshly rather than lovingly educated and nourished. (For any Christian readers: I no longer believe that this punishing view of morality is biblical. But that is a topic for a different post.)

The idea was that this bad part would then gradually learn to behave itself, disappear or have diminishing influence on us. In my experience and observation this simply didn’t work. Feeling bad about (the bad parts of) ourselves simply didn’t turn us into saints.

Secular morality seems quite similar — especially in what we expect of public figures. In Australia a little while ago a footballer (rugby, not soccer) was widely condemned by the media for adultery — this same media whose soap operas contain a good deal of adultery, and whose audience seems not particularly faithful to their spouses either.

It seems that both Evangelical and Anglo-Saxon secular culture is still quite Victorian (sexually focused, public figures being expected to be an example to the rest of society, and so on).

The mistake in this morality I think is to confuse our behaviour with ourselves. I think that we usually have a range of behaviours available to us — though we may not be aware of this at any particular time (especially when we are stressed). My way of saying this is that: all parts of a person are acceptable, but not all the behaviour of a person is acceptable.

I think acceptance of the different parts of ourselves, especially the parts we don’t like and think are bad, is the key to change. This is because of my understanding of why we usually don’t change.

We usually don’t change because we have competing desires. Sometimes we don’t change because we are ignorant, and when we are informed of what to do we then set about doing it. But usually it is not a case of ignorance of information. We often know how to eat more healthily or speak more kindly to others.

The usual response is to treat one of the desires as good and the other as bad. When the desire labelled ‘bad’ doesn’t go away, we may be encouraged to see ourselves (or one part of us) as bad.

As with external change, we begin with understanding the nature of what we are dealing with. In my experience the behaviour we engage in is often an attempt to gain something. Usually the ultimate desire is good even if the behaviour to get it is bad. A person may force themselves to have many sexual partners because they believe this is the only way to show care. A person may be violent in order to express anger or separate from others. To distinguish in this way between the person (or a part of the person) and their behaviour can open the space for choice. If I know that there are other ways to get what I want then I can start considering which way is better.

The discipline-and-punish morality usually fails to bring change. Knowing that we have a choice of ways to achieve our desires can be liberating. Finding that the behaviour we dislike was our best attempt to satisfy a legitimate desire can be a huge relief and time of elation. It is through accepting the ‘bad’ part of ourselves — and its valid needs — that personal change is brought about.

This is the paradox of acceptance. Accepting the situation we are in and the needs of every part of ourselves is the way to change.

I would like to hear about your experiences of change. What situations and relationships have helped you change? How has change come about in your life?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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