Acceptance and Change in Psychotherapy
Therapy is a delicate balance of acceptance and change. People come into therapy because something is not how they want it to be. What that something is can vary dramatically, but there is always the same desire: something's got to change. It may then feel like a paradox, when I inevitably, at some point, bring up this idea of acceptance in my therapy sessions.So, let’s explore a little further here about how these two seemingly polarized concepts are actually part of the most central dialectic in all forms of psychotherapy.
One of my favourite quotes about human nature comes from Carl Rogers, the pioneer of client-centred therapy. It goes, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”. Every time I read that, I can feel a chill go through my body. There is something that feels so deeply true here. I really believe this is the central pillar of psychotherapy, what is at the core of therapeutic change. One of the reasons for this, is because of what brings people in to counselling in the first place: core shame. Core shame is the feeling that one is completely disconnected, shunned from others and has no worth. It is no coincidence that solitary confinement is among one of the worst punishments available to someone. So what does core shame do to us? Well, if you've ever felt shame, you may have felt the feeling of wanting to make yourself small, invisible even, it feels viscerally painful and you want to do anything you can to make it go away. It certainly doesn't make us want to venture out and take risks. We believe we are bad, less than, and so we may believe it’s best for us just to stay put. In other words, it prevents us from exploring out in the world, making change impossible. So, what is the antidote to core shame? You got it, acceptance. Or, more precisely, internalizing the belief and feeling that we are OK as we are, that we are loved, that we can be accepted as we are. Acceptance nullifies shame, nullifying shame allows us to venture forward activating our social engagement system.
So, therapy is about creating an environment where you feels safe, loved, accepted, enough that you can take risks, be OK with not being perfect, and experiment new ways of being. You can take that risk of starting that conversation with a new friend, or finally beginning that new task at work you’ve been dreading, or having that tough conversation with your parter, because you can accept yourself if it doesn’t go perfectly. You can try out these new ways of being in a safe way, learning about yourself and growing in the process. You can hold the truth that, “I am OK, and worthy of love, just like anyone else, AND I want to change this particular aspect of my life. I want to be a better friend, or worker, or lover”. When we self accept, we may also decide we want to stand up for ourself a little bit more, and voice some hurts that we have been holding on to for far too long. Change begins with accepting you as you are. One caveat. To be clear, self acceptance DOES NOT mean being right all the time and not being open to feedback from others. In fact, the more self acceptance we have, the less someone's criticisms will hurt us in a deep way. Rather than, "wow I'm a really bad person for doing this" you might say, "hm, I really hurt that person, I want to apologize and do better next time". Acceptance and change are not polar opposites but rather have a symbiotic relationship with one another that allows them to function best when they work together.