By Shelley Richardson, MFT
Earlier this week I was reawakened to the beauty of acceptance as a healing concept when I watched, for the umpteenth time, the 2007 film “Lars and the Real Girl.” In this film Ryan Gosling plays a 20-something man named Lars who is highly uncomfortable with people and any human contact -- until he brings an inflatable girl into his home. After inviting the blowup girlfriend to dinner and including her in community events, the acceptance eventually comes from Lars' family, his doctor therapist, and his community. The acceptance is so complete that Ryan’s character is not only able to relax into change, but to become the agent of change. Providing that level of acceptance required Lars' family and community members to let go of their judgments about what was healthy or unhealthy, right or wrong, and instead tune in to what the person they cared about was actually feeling – and to sit with that feeling.
Admittedly the film depicts life in an idyllic small town that may seem completely unrealistic. And yet…the message is important: we can positively influence others lives by deeply accepting them as they are (in a way that criticism could never do). As a therapist, I can see the beauty in that level of acceptance and certainly hope that I can offer it to my clients. What surprised me recently, however, was how self-acceptance could be such a catalyst for change. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, stated this many years ago: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Although there are many things that I know to be true about myself, some negative and some not, I recently noticed how when I bring a very conscious level of acceptance to the way that I am and my habitual attitudes and behaviors, that a shift starts to happen almost immediately.
One of those examples had to do with how I feel about writing blogs. After expressing publicly that I did not understand why anyone would write a blog, I thought this through some more, went home, and tried my hardest to think about what I might actually blog about. In the past I had too easily dismissed people who wrote blogs and very rarely would be caught reading one – unless it was written by Robert Reich or someone I deemed worthy. I even went so far as express in front of a group full of bloggers all of my critical thoughts and judgments about blogs. And now, here I am… But over the course of the next week I experienced a few more examples of how really mulling over some aspect of my behavior and coming to terms with it loosened its grip on me. As a result I began to move in a new direction – allowing me to become unstuck. Again this is notable because so often we spend our time criticizing ourselves, which inevitably leads to stagnation instead of movement.
Acceptance is not a new concept. It is at the core of DBT, and it is part of the foundational dialectic between change and acceptance. Having originated long before Western Psychology discovered it, acceptance has long been a cornerstone of many Eastern Religions. Buddhism in particular holds that when we accept things as they are -- including the pain in life -- instead of wishing they were different, we have much less suffering. In DBT we call that Radical Acceptance, which Marsha Linehan describes this way in her Skills Manual: “Freedom from suffering requires acceptance from deep within of what is. Let yourself go completely with what is. Let go of fighting reality.”
This week I, finally, really get it.