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

–--Carl Rogers

On Acceptance

There is so much hubbub around us about self-help and improvement that the key precondition of personal change — self-acceptance — often gets completely lost. I’m as guilty of this one as anybody, and maybe more than most. If you are interested, as I am, in all things self-actualized, you too may experience the dilemma. With all the books and tapes and learning groups out there, it is very easy to fall into the pit of constantly attending to the gap between the ideal and the real — what I should be rather than what I am. For me, a contributing factor is my consulting work in organizations specifically helping people recognize, understand, and work with leadership and organizational gaps. In the process I know I can easily “over-focus” on my own ideals, losing sight of the fact that human change is mostly not a linear journey, but an organic one that paradoxically begins with awareness and acceptance of the parts that are not changing.

For me, Rogers’ quotation points to the softest tissue of the soul. I attended a recent workshop at which I believe the leader, Jim Sorensen, beautifully modeled what Rogers’ self-acceptance actually means. Faced with a participant trying to convince Jim in front of the hundred or so people in the class that he should simply “love his stuff,” no matter what it is, Jim very honestly and vulnerably stated that no, there were parts of himself he could not yet love. In doing so he modeled a deep honesty. By what he said and how he said it, and perhaps without any special intention, Jim made it safe for everyone there to also acknowledge parts of themselves that make complete self-love difficult. And he demonstrated how, even without that final self-love, there can also be self-acceptance.

I can imagine a long argument here about the similarities and differences between love and acceptance, and I’d rather not fall into that semantic whirlpool. But I do want to reinforce the importance of Jim’s gift to the audience. With acceptance, I believe that love, maybe capital L kind of love, comes of its own accord and from “outside.” With acceptance comes grace, comes healing, comes change into our lives, and they come from someplace beyond ourselves and yet in a way that is completely intrinsic to who we are.

Dreamcatchers: Ethnic Fest ’08, Tacoma WA

Last week, Karen Lynch of Vermont Diary sent me this compelling story of conversion and grace. While I do not identify myself as a Christian, and I certainly am not in any place to make a judgment about the meaning of Karen’s experience, what is undeniable is that somehow a door of transcendence opened for her in a single moment, as perhaps it can for any one of us. Maybe that moment is always happening, if only we have sufficient clarity to see its constant unfolding.

I believe what Rogers is talking about all the private, prayerful nuances of letting go, of finding the end, of simply being, of accepting — that things are okay, that I’m okay. Probably mostly this is an unconscious process of opening, of blossoming, where something redirects us and helps us regain our hold on our fundamental interconnectedness. The True Self. In my work I see leaders who attempt to substitute their hard work, achievements and intelligence for the serum of self-acceptance, leaders who are never enough to themselves yet refuse to go through the eye of the needle in order to experience something else. Truth be told, I identify with them. And yet I also see the possibilities of transcendence, which come from adversity and from questions that can’t be answered, only lived. When I am stopped cold by self-made pain, indeed it is then most frequently that the outlines of a new door begin to appear on an otherwise seamless inner wall.

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  • Thank you so much for this post, Dan. Well-stated and timely for me. I’ve shared over at Easily Amazed a practice that emerged recently to help me with my self-acceptance.

    With gratitude,

  • Dan: thanks for sharing your insights and experiences at the workshop – sounds like a moving experience in multiple dimensions!

    Your note about “human change is mostly not a linear journey” reminds me of Steven Jay Gould’s concept of punctuated equilibrium, wherein change happens in widely varying levels of intensity over time.

    I enjoyed reading about Karen Lynch’s conversion experience – it’s amazing what we can experience when we just loosen up a bit an open to possiblities (or unfoldings, as it were).

    And, of course, I am always drawn to anything that helps reveal our “fundamental interconnectedness” … well, at least, sometimes I am. There are other times when I am unwillng or unable to connect … and that is a part of me I am unwilling or unable to love … but I am willing to accept that part of me … at least in the spirit of this moment.

  • The beauty of your comment, Joe, is in the last part. As this post suggests, it seems to me the gift is within our awareness — and acceptance — of the parts of us we consider most unworthy of love. Perhaps this is because acceptance invites two almost magical things to happen: 1) we step back and in doing so remove some of the “fishhooks” of private pain that keep us blind (grief shared becomes bearable); and 2) in experiencing your acceptance I also see the potential of my own; in mine, you see something else of yours. Awareness comes, and with it healing, through mutuality. Consciousness creates itself in each of us, and then via community, in one another. Could there be a better form of art or more spectacular evidence of grace?

  • Hmm, I see two possible interpretations of this mutuality: your acceptance of yourself gives me permission to accept myself … and/or your acceptance of me gives me permission to accept myself. I suppose the mutual reinforcement arises in either interpretation.

    On a lighter note, I just happened to watch “Something About Mary” this weekend, so your reference to fishhooks was especially evocative.

  • Once one lets go of the external trappings of the ego, and exists as the vulnerable beast of benign survival, then one more appreciates the integrity and sacredness of all that is about him, thus passing through the eye-of-the-needle

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