Acceptance vs. Change

There is a big misconception out there about acceptance. Many people think that acceptance of something means to leave that thing as it is. The reality is that it is impossible to change anything until you accept it.

The reason for that is simple and lies in the definition: Acceptance is perception without having judgmental thoughts about the thing you perceived. Judgmental thoughts cloud your perception. For example: At one time I thought alcoholics are bad people—clearly a judgmental thought. So, by extension, if I am an alcoholic, I must be a bad person. In addition, since I did not like feeling like a bad person, I spent a lot of time telling myself that I was not an alcoholic. Denial takes a lot of energy, by the way. I spent a lot of time in a never-ending cycle of bad behavior followed by feeling bad about it followed by denial leading to more bad behavior. I found it was impossible to change the “bad” behavior until I set my judgmental thoughts aside.

However, as soon as I shared my behavior and thoughts about my drinking with another person and was heard with unconditional acceptance, I realized I wasn’t a bad person. Being an alcoholic doesn’t make you a bad person. Dropping the judgmental thoughts allowed me to look at my issues the way they really are. You can’t change anything unless you see it the way it really is. I could see that my drinking behavior was causing problems in my life. I could see that at times I couldn’t control my drinking, which led to bad behavior.  I could see that using a chemical to numb unpleasant feelings invariably led to more bad behavior. And I could see what I needed to change to make things better—starting with stopping drinking. Then I had to learn how to handle my feelings better, so they didn’t build up into an irresistible force to drink again.

Of course, acceptance isn’t just about personal issues. It works for everything. For example: climate change, gun violence, any kind of ethnic or gender discrimination, financial issues, etc. The list is literally endless.

When you accept something, you see it clearly. You don’t have to like it, but if you see it clearly you can change it—usually. However, there are some things that cannot be changed. The easy example is death. Everybody dies. Personally, I am hoping to postpone my death as long as possible, but I don’t obsess about it. I accept it. I have reached that point in life when I have lost both my parents, two brothers and several friends. Everyone of them left a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Fortunately, the human heart’s capacity for love is infinite. By accepting these losses, I am free to work at getting my needs met elsewhere.

I will close with a suggestion: As you go through your day, look for things you have judgmental thoughts about. Then try to set those thoughts aside. Try to see the issue the way it really is—then see what you need to do to change it. You might be surprised.

More About Therapeutic Relationships

I want to expand a bit on that statement in my previous post “we would continue to grow throughout our lifespan and as we do, our actions would be less and less colored by beliefs that are not reality based.”

Let’s pick that statement apart. There is a whole branch of psychology called developmental psychology that deals with the fact that human beings grow mentally as they grow physically. There are numerous systems of classification of the stages of development. Broadly speaking, they describe how when a person is born, they are very self-centered and as their physical and mental capacities increase, they learn to be a more self-reliant and social. However, sometimes—often—something interferes with this natural growth process and people get “stuck” at one stage or another.

Many things can cause this interference, but perhaps the most common is trauma of one sort or another. Most people experience trauma of one sort or another at some point. And, interestingly, things that are traumatic to one person may not necessarily be traumatic to someone else.

The point is when people get stuck, they experience all kinds of unpleasant things like anxiety, depression, addiction and even psychosis if they are genetically predisposed to it. These kinds of things tend to interfere with your ability to get what you want or need from life—leading to more unhappiness. One characteristic that these people (by which I mean everyone) invariably share is the belief in a number of things that are not true—like “I don’t deserve to be happy.” Such thoughts are learned from others acting on their own erroneous beliefs and in turn influence your behavior.

One thing these erroneous thoughts all share is they are all judgmental in some way. This gives us a clue about how to combat these destructive thoughts. Acceptance, by definition, is the polar opposite of judgmental thinking. They are incompatible and cannot exist in the same space. In fact, we know that working on acceptance is a valuable tool in recovery from the conditions mentioned in the previous paragraph. In essence, we are replacing erroneous judgmental thoughts with a more realistic view of the world and acceptance of it.

So, how do we accomplish this miracle of acceptance and growth? As far as I know the best and probably only way is to find someone with whom they have achieved a level of emotional intimacy and discuss those unpleasant aspects of yourself—and be heard with unconditional acceptance.  Unconditional acceptance says, “I see your reality and it’s OK.” It is what it is. In that moment someone else’s acceptance allows you to see your own reality a bit clearer and be OK with it. Enough of that sort of thing allows you to grow past the beliefs and behaviors that have been causing you trouble and move forward with your life on a firmer foundation.  That is the value of therapeutic relationships.

Therapeutic Relationships

In my last post I brought up the topic of therapeutic relationships. I’d like to expand on that a bit. Have you ever had an issue rattling around in your head that you felt you couldn’t talk to anyone about? I’m going to assume the answer is ‘yes’ because I think that experience is pretty universal. Then, when you finally talk to someone you realize that your thinking had gone in a decidedly crazy direction? I think most of us have experienced this at one time or another. This phenomenon is just one example of what it means to be a social being. This one benefit of having therapeutic relationships.

Carl Rodgers said that a therapist must demonstrate the qualities of empathy, genuineness and respect to be effective. Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the issues of the other. Genuineness is the quality of being open and honest with the other. Respect involves unconditional acceptance (without judgement) of the other. It also means seeing the other as our equal—empathy, not sympathy. Another important factor in a therapist-client relationship is that it remains client centered. That means many things, but perhaps the most important is that the therapist does not impose his or her values and beliefs on the client.

So, how does this work? Well, on their first meeting the therapist asks questions find out where the client’s pain is. Then responds in such a way as to indicate understanding of the client’s point of view and unconditional acceptance of it—even if it sounds really wacky. As the therapist continues to demonstrate the three qualities ideally the client feels more comfortable disclosing sensitive issues and may even start to see that some of their conclusions and beliefs were not reality based and decide to change them. As beliefs change, so does behavior. As behavior changes the client starts getting natural positive feedback and an unending cycle of self-examination and personal growth begins. At this point the client has outgrown the therapist.

When all this comes together, it is a beautiful thing to behold. However, what if we applied these same principles to our personal relationships? Could we develop relationships that are mutually therapeutic? Absolutely! I believe that if we can learn to apply the characteristics of therapeutic relationships to our personal relationships, we would see deeper friendships, stronger relationships and healthier people—both mentally and physically. We would support our friendships in time of need, and they would support us. Perhaps most importantly, we would continue to grow throughout our lifespan and as we do, our actions would be less and less colored by beliefs that are not reality based. What a world it would be.

Joy In The New Year

Well, the holidays are over, and I hope you had good ones. I’d like to continue in the vein of my previous post and talk about finding more joy. After all, I did write a book on the subject. (In Pursuit of Joy https://www.amazon.com/Pursuit-Joy-Gary-Green-ebook/dp/B0045Y263G )

The first thing I want to tell you is that if you are currently miserable much of the time, it won’t be quick or easy. However, it is possible and well worth the effort. Going from misery to joy is a growth process. I call it recovery. You may think you don’t have a condition from which you need to recover. Maybe you don’t. Good for you—really. But the process is the same. Along the way you will find that some of the things you believed all your life are not true and some things you were skeptical of are. Try to keep an open mind.

So, where do you start? I recommend starting with the knowledge that humans are social beings and as such, we have social needs. One of those needs is emotional intimacy. That means you need at least one person in your life that you can talk about absolutely anything with and expect to be heard with unconditional acceptance. That means they will listen with out passing judgement on you.

So, what if you don’t have any such person in your life? Fortunately, there are people who are paid to listen to people with unconditional acceptance and help them sort things out. We call those people therapists. I realize you may have had experiences with therapists in the past that led you to believe therapy is a bunch of crap. Well, not all therapists are created equal. You are an individual and just like not all shoes will fit your feet; not all therapists will be a good fit for you. Try again. While I realize a therapist is not a permanent replacement for having emotionally intimate friendships; it is a good place to start if you don’t have any.

A good therapeutic relationship will help you figure out the causes of your misery and develop a plan to make things better.

Maybe this is a good place to stop for today. In the next installment I will talk more about therapeutic relationships. i

The Spirit of the Season

Well, the holiday season is upon us. We all know what that means. Everyone is filled with the spirit of generosity, people wish each other a “Merry Christmas”. There are parties. People get all nostalgic and reconnect with old friends and family. It is a great time of year—except: There are many people who have lost loved ones for whom Christmas is a reminder of what they have lost. There are plenty of people who just can’t afford to be generous. And, there a plenty of people whose lives are empty, and the holiday is just a reminder of what they don’t have in their life.
I’m not trying to bring people down here, even though it may seem like it. I’m just stating the facts. Now that we have established the truth of the matter, I do have a few suggestions. Be genuine. I have long been an advocate of being real. If you feel the “Christmas Spirit”, show it in ways that seem appropriate. If the holidays trigger depression, don’t try to hide it. Don’t try to numb it with alcohol or drugs. There are better and more permanent ways to deal with that. Above all, start to believe “I don’t have to feel this way.” Then act on that belief.
If I could give you all one gift it would be this: the knowledge that each moment has the potential for joy if you know how to find it. Perhaps that is the true meaning of that old holiday wish of: “May the spirit of the season be with you throughout the year”.
P.S. If you are wondering how to find the joy in each moment, stay tuned for future posts.

Thanksgiving

Since this is the week of Thanksgiving, I thought it would be a good time to talk about gratitude. When I was teaching my mindfulness class, I always included a section on mindfulness because there can be all kinds of benefits to making gratitude into a mindfulness practice. What I mean by that is going through your daily routine with the intent of finding things to feel grateful for.
For example, when my house burned down last year, I would have had a much harder time if I hadn’t been looking for things to feel gratitude for. Surprisingly, I found a lot to be thankful for. Starting when the house was still burning, people came out of the woodwork to be nice to me and help me. It was quite moving actually. It kind of restored my faith in humanity—after it had taken a beating in the presidential election of 2016. (more about this later) Now, I have been living in my new house for almost a year and I wake up every morning with gratitude that I had good insurance.
So, here is a list of things I give thanks for regularly:
1. My life. The older I get, the better I get at finding the joy in everyday things.
2. I am very grateful for my (new) home. Also, that it sits on my 50 acres, so I can wander through the woods and do a little farming.
3. My family and friends. We are all social animals after all.
4. The birds in my back yard. I didn’t realize the number and variety until I started feeding them. They provide endless hours of entertainment.
5. I am grateful that more people voted in this most recent election. Like many people I have been dismayed and embarrassed that the current president was elected. I think that many people thought “it doesn’t matter” or “I don’t like Trump and I’m not so sure about Hillary.” So they didn’t vote. I’m here to tell you that It is OK to vote against something—so long as you vote. This time people voted. Not only that, but they sent a message that as a nation we don’t want what Trump is selling. Thank you.
6. I am grateful for all the stuff I learned in my life.
7. I am grateful that my mother’s piano was not destroyed in the fire and I was able to have it restored so it sounds great again.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. My point is that everyone can find something to feel gratitude for. Do it. It feels good.

Are You Frustrated?

Are you frustrated? I am. What frustrates you? I’ll tell you what frustrates me. It’s a fairly long list: School shootings, suicide bombers, lying politicians, rich people who grasp for more while many go hungry, corporations who pursue profits regardless of the human cost and lie to us about it, health insurance company executives getting rich off the sickness and misery of others and lying to us about it, climate change (don’t get me started), conspiracy theorists, people with the “every man for himself” attitude—I could go on and on. But, you get the idea.

The common theme here is things that cause suffering and scare people. That’s right. If you are frustrated by any or all these things, chances are you are scared too. I recently spoke to a group of county mental health social workers about mindfulness and was somewhat surprised when one of them asked “We’ve all been seeing a sharp increase in anxiety disorders and depression. What do you think is causing it and can mindfulness help?” As for the cause: just look at the time we live in. And yes, mindfulness practices can help. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The point here is: if you are frustrated and feeling anxious and depressed, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. It’s an epidemic. Our society is sick and getting sicker. Accept it.

We, as a society, need to get started on recovery and sooner is better than later. The first step in recovery is acceptance (a mindfulness concept) and the first step in acceptance is “talking about things the way they really are”. That means you have to put some effort into learning how things really are. I know, that sounds like work. However, what you don’t know CAN hurt you and what you ignore probably WILL hurt you.
Acceptance is awareness without judgment. That means people who don’t agree with you or are doing any of those things I mentioned in the first paragraph are not evil—they just are. I know it’s hard to get your mind to the point where you can condemn the behavior and not the person, but it can be done.

So, if you are frustrated and maybe a little anxious and depressed I have a few suggestions if you’re interested.

1. Begin the study of mindfulness practices AND principles. Find at least 10-15 minutes every day to practice a meditative, “deep relaxation” type of mindfulness practice.

2. Reach out. Talk about those things that frustrate you—talk about your fear.

3. Take action. Education is the beginning of action. Learn about how things really are. You might even find some of the things you fear are not real.

4. Learn about the issues and VOTE. I know people who think it doesn’t matter who is in power— “they’re all a bunch of crooks.” Well, it DOES matter. Politicians who want to keep their jobs must pay attention to their constituents: you and me.

I know my suggestions might seem a bit simplistic and even a little cliché. But you gotta start somewhere and I swear that as more people follow these suggestions and start pulling together things can and will get better.